By Tony Mauro
Top officials of all three branches of government, in attendance at the annual Roman Catholic Red Mass in Washington on Sunday morning, heard a sermon decrying the climate of "highly polarized and polarizing rhetoric" that engulfs the nation's capital.
In a sermon to the audience at the soaring Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in D.C., Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell said "petty partisanship and ever-politicizing rhetoric should have no place at all when men and women of good will come together to serve the common good."
His comments come against the backdrop of the government shutdown and deadlock between Congress and the White House. The shutdown's now in its sixth day, and lawmakers are growing increasingly more concerned about the potential harm on the judiciary.
Five U.S. Supreme Court justices attended the Red Mass, as did several members of Congress and the White House chief of staff Denis McDonough. The justices on hand were Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., and justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
The mass continues a 60-year-old tradition and is intended to bless the upcoming work of the Supreme Court and other judges and public officials. It always takes place the Sunday before the first Monday in October, when the high court’s new term begins by law. As such, it is a ritual that ushers in the court’s fall season and marks the first time a large number of justices is seen together in public since the end of the prior term in June.
The name of the mass refers to the bright red vestments worn by the clerics conducting the mass, and also alludes to the red flame symbolizing the Holy Spirit. The John Carroll Society, a group of Catholic professionals in the Archdiocese of Washington, sponsors the mass. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and his wife Jane have long been active in the society, and Jane Roberts is listed as the its historian on the society's web site.
After the mass, the society was scheduled to meet over brunch at the Washington Hilton to give awards to lawyers and law firms that have this year given $1.7 million in legal services to people in need in the Washington area.
Bishop Farrell likened the current political landscape to the biblical tower of Babel, which symbolized, he said, a state of "meaningless confusion of words and sound." Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, led the Mass.
In recent years, the sermons delivered at the Red Mass have mostly been about broad themes of peace and harmony, though passing reference is sometimes made to protecting the unborn and the need to bring church and state closer together. As it happens, the court has both an abortion case and an Establishment Clause case on its docket this fall.
Bishop Farrell made no mention of either abortion or church-state relations on Sunday, focusing instead on the need for civility and respect in public dialogue.
In the 1980s and 1990s, homilists sometimes made more pointed anti-abortion remarks that seemed aimed at the captive audience of justices in attendance. In Stars of David, a 2005 book by Abigail Pogrebin, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said of the Red Mass, “I went one year and I will never go again, because this sermon was outrageously anti-abortion. Even the Scalias--although they’re very much of that persuasion--were embarrassed for me.”
The mass has drawn more attention as the number of Catholics on the high court has increased. On the current court, six justices are Catholic and three are Jewish, with no Protestants since John Paul Stevens retired in 2010.
Also spotted at the cathedral this morning were Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan, Magistrate Judge John Facciola and Judge Francis Allegra of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., on tap to argue Tuesday in the campaign finance case McCutcheon v. FEC, also attended the Mass.
Contact Tony Mauro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update: Because of information provided by the Archdiocese of Washington, an earlier version of this post misstated the value of the pro bono work done in the community by lawyers affiliated with the John Carroll Society.
Photo: Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, and Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. on the steps of the cathedral today. (Photo by Jay Mallin)