Catholic Judges

Why do Catholics make such good judges?
Well, it depends what you mean by "Catholics," I suppose. What I had in mind was a person in no doubt about any of the propositions in the Catholic creeds — including no doubt that the words mean what they say, and not something else. That would, alas, rule out a significant proportion even of regular church-goers, though I’d rather avoid naming names.
By spelling this out, I may already have answered my own question. For while it is by no means a complete definition of what a Catholic is, or could be, it makes a start. The ability — or rather willingness — to take plain statements at face value is a large part of what distinguishes the Catholic from nearly everyone else.
That may sound an arrogant assertion, but I think it will bear fairly close examination. It is at least something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. To my mind, modern heresies begin, as the more ancient ones I can understand, with the insistence on taking some fairly plain Catholic statement in a "metaphorical" way. I exclude from this charge, of course, those who interpret metaphorical statements in metaphorical ways.
Now the reader may also want to know what I mean by "good judges." Here my answer must be even more controversial, though I don’t see why it should be — if, in fact, we are living in a universe where two plus two is four. A good judge is a person who applies the law honestly, as it was received. He serves the law, not something else. A bad judge is one who is a law unto himself. Good judges may have many other virtues; that is where they start.
But then we ask what we mean by "law" and quickly discover the source of the controversy, in two irreconcilable ideas about what law is. According to the older, Christian view, the law is written deeply into the nature of things, and is "discovered" in the act of trying to apply it. The written law merely records and encapsulates our discoveries about that "natural" law, which lies deeper. So there is never, strictly speaking, any such thing as a new law; only old law applied to new circumstances. And we should get a deeper and deeper appreciation of the law as we build our caseload of precedents.
But to the post-Christian view, this is all smoke. Nature no more exists than God, in their default position. Law is something we make up as we go along, according to our own fluctuating values. And when we tire of an old law, or find it otherwise inconvenient, we replace it with a new one. Words, themselves, can mean almost anything, for they can be redefined. A "marriage," for instance, could be between a dog and a cat, should we so decide. Likewise, the law becomes the law only in the moment of Humpty Dumpty’s choosing.
To put this in another way: We live in a state of increasing lawlessness, and thus diminishing freedom, because the law cannot be known beforehand, or until a judge has made it up.
The reader may guess that although I am not an American, if I were I’d be a "strict constructionist." For I think your American Constitution is a fairly clear document that can be applied honestly, and should be, short of another American Revolution. Justice requires that.
There are people who call themselves Christian, or even Catholic in some cases, for complicated reasons that we needn’t consider here. Often it is a question of ethnic identity: "born Catholic, always Catholic," regardless of what they currently believe. They forget that no one is born Catholic, nor can be sure of dying as one; that the pope himself does not own Catholicity.
They have subscribed to the notion that Christianity is "nice," and can be embraced "sincerely," but that nothing in it need be taken literally. And since they don’t seem to know much about what is in it, either, they can be pretty vague.
They do other things by analogy with their religion. The Constitution is "nice," and they can "sincerely" pledge allegiance to it, but it needn’t be taken literally. Christianity is a "living religion," needing constant update. The Constitution is a "living document." Ditto all other laws.
Your new president’s first appointment to the Supreme Court is on record suggesting a judge should consult "gender," ethnicity, or skin color in her thinking — not only her customers’, but her own. It is a position that, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr. would never have taken, for King was an intelligent Christian, and thus very clear that people have immutable, individual souls, and are not to be classed as brands of skinbags.
He might have made a good judge, even though he was not fully Catholic. For he believed in things he said he believed in. He believed in God, and he believed in the American Constitution, and in neither case was his belief "metaphorical." In fact, that’s how he got into so much trouble: by peacefully defying those who don’t believe words mean what they say.

David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is


Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Revised and Expanded) (2010) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).

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