Justice Antonin Scalia’s veneration of St. Thomas More was well known. His chambers included a replica of Hans Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More. At Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration, Antonin Scalia wore a replica of the round black hat More wears in that portrait.
Scalia revered Thomas More for his conscientious and principled loyalty to Catholic teaching. Scalia scorned the image promoted in Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons of More as being some free-thinking individualist who happened to find himself in disagreement with King Henry VIII over his second marriage to Ann Boleyn. Instead, Scalia honored Thomas More as the loyal Catholic he was in historical fact.
This was brought uncomfortably home to a large group of Catholic lawyers who gathered to hear Justice Scalia when he spoke to the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Chicago some dozen years ago. The Guild sponsored the speech at a special dinner that fell outside the Guild’s normal annual fall meeting time. Scalia was, and remains, the most prominent legal figure to ever address the Guild.
The dinner drew the Guild’s largest audience, and we were all enthused with the prospect of hearing this intellectual giant hold forth as a fellow Catholic and lawyer.
Scalia began his speech with a report about a recent Marian apparition near Washington, D.C. I do not recall if the apparition concerned a miraculous appearance of Mary on a wall or simply that a statute of Mary had begun to weep tears. Whatever the apparition was, Scalia told us how a Washington Post reporter had asked him if he was going to go out and see the apparition for himself. The reporter clearly wanted Scalia to either discount the apparition or to commit himself to visiting it.
Justice Scalia told us what he told the reporter. He would not visit the apparition even if it was genuine because it would make no difference to his faith. He was a Catholic, and Catholicism, he explained to us as he explained to the reporter, is not a sophisticated religion. It is a simple religion.
I remember some of us starting to fidget. This was not the kind of Catholic apologetics one expected to hear from this intellectual giant.
Scalia reminded us that we Catholics do seem to believe some astounding but simple things, things like the Resurrection. He went on to relate an anecdote about a Swiss or French priest who endeavored to teach his 18th century flock to treat the mentally disabled housed in a nearby asylum as fellow human beings. The priest ordered his people to call the mentally disabled people “Christians,” or, in the local dialect, “cretins.”
Antonin Scalia then told us to remember that our religion is so simple that it truly is for all of us “cretins.”
From this strange opening, Scalia moved into a discussion of Thomas More. He criticized the modern image of More as an independent conscience or intellectual lone ranger.
Thomas More was executed, Scalia reminded us, because he was loyal to the Pope on an issue that was primarily political in nature and to a Pope whose administration was one of the most venal in history.
Now, Scalia said, we have Pope John Paul II who is morally exemplary and is giving us clear moral guidance, but what Catholic leaders are willing to be loyal to this Pope?
The room was silent. Not shamed, just silent. Shortly thereafter, when the speech concluded, there was only tepid applause. Antonin Scalia simply was not the type of guest one expected to hear speaking to a Catholic legal establishment that has been accommodating itself to the times since John F. Kennedy’s presidency.
Today, reflecting on Antonin Scalia’s death and his faith, my mind keeps revisiting two facts that corroborate how well Scalia had studied and channeled Thomas More’s example into his own life.
First, when I heard Scalia speak that night, I knew that Thomas More would have been delighted by Justice Scalia’s citation of the “cretin” story. More sometimes would joke about how his surname was derived from the same Greek root that gave us the word “moron.” Despite his great intellectual powers, More humbly confessed his dependence upon God’s revelation and Church for guidance.
Second, Thomas More’s humility enabled him to maintain an excellent political personality along with his intellectual excellence. Confronting opponents, including the judges who condemned him and the executioner who would behead him, More would express his hope that they all would “make merry together in heaven.”
Antonin Scalia was famously loved by those who knew him as a great, enjoyable companion. On the Supreme Court, there was surely no one more opposed to him ideologically than Ruth Bader Ginsberg. But Justice Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia were close friends, sharing opera tickets and family vacations. In remembering Justice Scalia yesterday, the Washington Post quoted Justice Scalia on the friendships that crossed politics and ideology:
“If you can’t disagree ardently with your colleagues about some issues of law and yet personally still be friends, get another job, for Pete’s sake.”
Intransigent and conservative on matters of principle and unfailingly liberal in matters of human fellowship, Antonin Scalia, I pray, is making merry today at another banquet with at least one other lawyer, the man who first wore that round black hat.
-Gerald E. Nora
-Photo Credit (Flickr)