It is a grand Washington, DC tradition. Every year, on the first Sunday in October, Catholic and non-Catholic dignitaries alike gather at St Matthew’s Cathedral to pray for the judicial branch of government. It’s the annual Red Mass, a tradition that extends back to 13th-century Europe, when the first Red Mass was celebrated. Washington’s Red Mass is scheduled to coincide with the start of the Supreme Court’s new term. Each year, many of the high court’s justices attend, both Christian and Jewish, as well as presidents, vice presidents, diplomats and members of Congress.
It is an enduring ritual that brings people of different faiths together to pray for wisdom and God’s blessings upon our country. It’s a beautiful example of how expressions of faith enrich our culture.
This year, however, the Supreme Court docket is full of cases that threaten traditions such as the Red Mass, cases that could severely diminish religious expression in our public life. Clashing visions of the role of religion will be hotly debated in what court-watchers predict will be a blockbuster year for religious liberty cases.
Is the public expression of religion a force for division, repression and intolerance? Or is the free exercise of religion a force for good in our pluralistic society? In particular, what role does the Catholic tradition play in contributing to the public good of our nation and her people?
In one of the upcoming term’s high-profile cases, Espinoza vs Montana, the Court will consider whether a state can prohibit school-choice scholarships for low-income students enrolled in religiously affiliated – overwhelmingly Catholic – schools. At issue are the so-called Blaine amendments that were originally designed to discriminate against Catholic “sectarian” schools.
Catholic schools provide myriad quantifiable and unquantifiable benefits to our nation. Almost two million children, Catholic and non-Catholic, attend Catholic schools. A staggering 99 per cent of these students graduate and, of those graduates, 88 per cent go on to college. And the per-pupil cost at Catholic schools is half that of public schools: better educational outcomes at half the cost. We should be supporting, not penalising, these schools and encouraging the parents who want their children to attend them.
Catholic schools provide the faith and character education that are essential to a child’s ability to thrive. In fact, a recent Harvard study showed that children brought up with faith become happier and healthier adults. Our Founders certainly understood the need for a citizenry to be educated in virtue for the health of a democracy. As John Adams wrote, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Given the coarsening of our culture, it is reasonable to believe that a good dose of character education is still a plus for the republic.
Catholic schools also have the intangible benefit of helping families break the cycle of poverty; they educate 42 per cent of all non-public school children in under-served urban areas. Again, many of these kids are not Catholic.
The court will also consider taking up a case that involves Philadelphia’s Catholic Social Services. The city refused to renew its foster care contract unless the agency disregarded Church teaching on marriage. Catholic Social Services had been placing needy children with loving families for 100 years. It’s known for finding “forever homes” for hard-to-place sibling groups and special needs children. Similar hostility to faith-based charities has already harmed children by shutting down Catholic adoption agencies in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Washington.
At a time when the opioid and immigration crises are increasing the need for foster and adoptive parents, the Church’s contribution to the public good should be encouraged. The Supreme Court will have a chance to decide whether governments should tell Catholic social service organisations that they need not apply to meet this crisis.
There are countless additional examples of the contribution of people of faith to the common good. Consider the Knights of Columbus, the fraternal organisation that contributes well over $100 million annually to charitable causes and more than 75 million hours of volunteer service. Or Catholic Charities’ work with immigrants at the border, which prompted New York’s Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer to say: “I was very impressed with the Catholic charities’ … humane way of dealing with this problem.” Both organisations have been hampered by our unnecessary religious-liberty culture wars.
The conflict between those bent on ridding the public square of all religious expression and those seeking to protect the free exercise of their religion beyond the walls of their church will be on full display this term. October marks the beginning of the Supreme Court term. For Catholics, it is also the month dedicated to the rosary. With so much at stake, let us join our prayers with those attending the Red Mass. Let’s pray that the Supreme Court fosters the vision of our Founders in which people of all faiths can live together in harmony.
Maureen Malloy Ferguson is a Senior Fellow for The Catholic Association