Will Religion Make Justice Scalia Resign? November 1, 2011

Will Religion Make Justice Scalia Resign?

by Jesse Galef –

It’s not every day you see USA Today call out a sitting Supreme Court Justice.  Apparently Justice Antonin Scalia isn’t quite as accomplished a theologian as he is a judge. Speaking at Duquesne University about the death penalty, he said some pretty revealing things.  In a great article by Lisa Miller, he’s quoted as saying:

“If I thought that Catholic doctrine held the death penalty to be immoral, I would resign. I could not be part of a system that imposes it.”

Miller tears him apart. Calling it “nothing short of astonishing,” she lays out evidence that the Catholic doctrine probably does condemn the death penalty.

To recap: The U.S. bishops oppose capital punishment. So do this pope, the last pope and documents from the Vatican press office. Catholic doctrine isn’t crystal clear, but Scalia himself believes “Evangelium Vitae” fails to support capital punishment. And so, in the tradition of millions of Catholics for thousands of years, he has rejected official teaching in favor of his own view, which he believes (to be presumptuous for a minute) to be more traditional and more moral than the established one.

She goes on to close with some pointed remarks:

That’s fine with me. I don’t want a justice sitting on the Supreme Court who submits blindly to religious authority or who holds his religion above the laws of the land. So keep your job, Justice Scalia. Just don’t pretend your church approves of the death penalty. Or that you aren’t like most people of faith, cherry-picking the teachings of your church that suit you best.


After a few minutes mulling it over, I went from angry to happy.  I realized that Scalia’s actually following my vision of separation of church and state.  Justices are tasked with interpreting the Constitution of our secular government according to secular reasoning. Justices can absolutely be religious — there shall be no religious test for office, after all — but they need to be able to put those convictions aside to serve their secular purpose. If they’re not able to do so, they’re not fit for office.

Apparently Justice Scalia agrees! That’s pretty much what he said: if he thought interpreting the Constitution was strongly at odds with his religious morals, he would step down.

Wait, Scalia says that he’ll leave the court if he believes the legal system supports something the Catholic Church considers immoral?

Quick, tell him about the Catholic Church’s position on divorce!


(And no, this entire post wasn’t just an excuse to post this picture:

If you ever see me at the bar, ask me to tell you the funny story.)

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  • 59 Norris

    The Catholic Church teaches in a clear and up front manner through the it’s catechism that the death penalty can indeed be morally licit.  Therefore, the Catholic Church does not teach that the death penalty is, per se and in all cases, immoral, wrong, illicit, etc.

    There’s a whole lotta nothing to the linked article, unless you count snarky sophistries to be something.

  • CW

    What on earth is a “career atheist?”

  • Jesse Galef is, as he makes a living doing things connected with atheism.

  • Ronlawhouston

    Oh come on Jesse.  You think a little cognitive dissonance will make him resign?   The guy lives in his own alternative reality.

  • Most Catholics have become,in fact, Episcopalians.

    Personal conscience+ the Mass and Communion “thing”.

  • Erik

    So if a republican court justice resigns while a democrat is president, does the president get to assign the new justice (and would it almost certainly be another democrat?)

  • Anonymous

    I’m no expert on the Catholicism, but I kinda thought that the Pope was supposes to be the voice of God on Earth and that his interpretation was Catholic law. So if the Pope is against cap. punishment, then that is Catholic doctrine. Am I wrong about that? Any ex-Catholics here to correct me? 

  • Anonymous

    Obama would probably appoint a centrist/Republican-lite judge to replace him. 🙁

  • I think the President’s selection needs the approval of the Senate,
    so politics comes into play.

  • 59 norris

    The Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallability if far more restrictive (and complicated) than you think it is.  If a pope declares a doctrine infallable “ex cathedra” (i.e. “from the chair” with the authority of the office) or in conjunction with the college of cardinals, then it is a dogma Catholics are required to hold as true.

    Such declarations are rare.

    However, no pope has ever declared that the death penalty cannot be justly administered.

  • Annie

    I’m a recovering Catholic… but I’m not here to correct you.  I just laughed out loud when I read  “the Catholicism”.  For some reason it reminded me of my grandma saying, “the pot”.   To your question- I think changing Catholic doctrine might be more complicated than the pope just saying, “Make it so.”  Apparently, the pope isn’t as strong as a star fleet captain. 

  • 59 norris

    In fact, I think you have that backwards.  There are entire Episcopal churches “crossing the Tiber” to become Roman Catholic parishes.

  • Whatever the Pope declares “ex cathedra”(from the chair)
    is considered an infallible mandate.

    (X-Catho holic)

  • Anonymous

    I stand corrected. Thanks. 

  • Nickolas Johnson


  • I’m pretty sure the death penalty is manditory for witches.  Anyone?

  • Bob Becker

    Scalia driven by his tender faith conscience to step down?   From your keyboard to Flying Spaghetti Monster’s ear!

  • PeteUK

    So when did the Catholic church renounce the ‘convert of kill’ policy that caused the Pilgrim Fathers to leave Yurop for a life free of religious oppression in the new world?

  • The Catholic position on capital punishment is apparently contextual.  If you are a Catholic and are of the mind that capital punishment is OK, then the Catholic position is that it is OK.  If you are of the mind that it is not OK, then the Catholic position is that it is not OK.  Since Scalia is of the mind that it is OK, he views the Catholic position as condoning capital punishment.

  • Valhar2000

    He’s not going to resign; he was saying that for effect. You couldn’t drag him off the chair with 10 mules.

  • Anonymous

    Let’s hope that he never has to preside over a case of child rape by a priest.  Not that this is likely to happen because the Catholic church would have moved him on to a “retreat” somewhere so he can do “penance”.  Honestly the church is so corrupt and wicked that I’m shocked that anyone would dare to hold it up as a moral example.

  • They’re throwing away their contraceptives?

  • I know they supported the death penalty back in 1480. The Inquisition was all about putting people on trial and they killed some folks, if I am not mistaken…

    Has the Catholic church changed their views on killing people since then?

  • SJH

    I am not sure and I am inclined to look into this some more but I believe that the Inquisitions were started and perpetuated by the local monarchs and not the Church. I think there are actually some cases where the Popes asked the local monarchs to ease up on their punishments. This is not to say that the Church was innocent of wrong doing but you may want to be careful about the historical accuracy of your accusations and what they imply.

  • Gerry

    I think it would have been interesting if Lisa Miller had just come out and said in the article that Church doctrine condemns the death penalty, just to watch the uproar that followed!

  • Anonymous

     Antonin Scalia is one scary dude. On one occasion he gave a speech defending the death penalty from criticism that it often kills the innocent: “For the believing Christian, death is no big deal.” It follows of course that killing is no big deal. Scalia has also expressed contempt for democracy because it obscures divine authority of the state – an extraordinary position for someone who is supposed to have some passing familiarity with the US Constitution. I get the impression that Scalia is the most overtly activist and dominionist judge who has ever sat on the Supreme Court.


  • Nox

    Some (most famously the Spanish Inquisition) were run by monarchs as a favor to the church. But the Inquisitions were started by Pope Lucius III.

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