Critical Mass: D.C. Archdiocese Sponsors Special Religious Service For Judges And Government Officials

Is the Red Mass becoming less political?

Yesterday was the Red Mass, an annual event for members of the legal profession sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and the John Carroll Society. The archdiocese and the Society always hold the event on the Sunday before the first Monday in October, which is when the Supreme Court goes back in session.

In years past, Catholic bishops have used the mass as an opportunity to harangue judges, legislators and government officials about the church’s view on issues such as abortion, marriage and even government aid to religious schools. The event annoys a lot of us in the church-state separation community because no other group, religious or secular, has such an opportunity to lobby the Supreme Court.

If this were any other group, I suspect there would be an outcry. But because the event is pitched as a religious service, it largely gets a pass.

Some reporters are paying attention. Tony Mauro, a writer for Legal Times, attends the mass every year. Mauro reported that five high court justices attended yesterday’s event – Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan.

Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell delivered the homily. Mauro reported that Farrell issued a plea for unity and civility; he called on political leaders to rise above the partisan bickering that has sparked a shutdown of the federal government.

The Washington Times reported that Farrell told a standing-room-only crowd, “Today we are more like Babel than Pentecost, we are more about confusion than wisdom, more separate in and by rhetoric than united. We may disagree. But there can be no place for derision or smugness. When we respect differences of opinion in dialogue, we respect and revere the differences that provide variety and give texture to this great country of ours.”

As Mauro pointed out, “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.”

But he went on to add, “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.’”

I’m glad to see the Red Mass was less partisan this year – but I wonder if that trend will last. The question is especially compelling considering some recent statements by Pope Francis. The pope recently made headlines by expressing his desire for a church that is less obsessed with issues like abortion and gay rights.

The pope’s comments sent shockwaves through the worldwide Catholic community, and he was quick to clarify that the church continues to oppose legal abortion.

A few days ago, the pope gave another interview that made less of a splash but that also contains some interesting comments. In a wide-ranging discussion with Eugenio Scalfari, editor of an Italian newspaper called La Repubblica, Francis, when asked about the role of politics in the church replied, “Why do you ask? I have already said that the church will not deal with politics.”

The pope went on to add, “I say that politics is the most important of the civil activities and has its own field of action, which is not that of religion. Political institutions are secular by definition and operate in independent spheres. All my predecessors have said the same thing, for many years at least, albeit with different accents. I believe that Catholics involved in politics carry the values of their religion within them but have the mature awareness and expertise to implement them. The church will never go beyond its task of expressing and disseminating its values, at least as long as I'm here.”

Much skepticism has been expressed about these comments, in light of the church’s long involvement in politics here and abroad. But if Pope Francis is serious about forging a church that is more inclusive and less political, an excellent first step would be to shut down the Red Mass.