President George W. Bush and newly confirmed Chief Justice John G. Roberts joined a slew of other government officials at Washington, D.C.’s annual “Red Mass” Oct. 2.
The Catholic mass, named for the red vestments worn by the officiating clergy, takes place every October before the start of the new Supreme Court term. This year, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C., led the service, using his sermon to call for more civility in public life.
In previous years, bishops and cardinals have used the mass to lecture high court justices and other officials on the church’s position on controversial issues such as abortion, gay rights, religion in the public square and government aid to religious schools and institutions.
The mass was one of Roberts’ first public appearances since being confirmed and sworn in. That, and Bush’s attendance, led to heavy media coverage of the event. Perhaps aware of the intense media interest, McCarrick kept his sermon relatively subdued and avoided direct references to controversial social issues. He singled out several challenges facing the world today, among them terrorism, the war in Iraq, AIDS and the needs of those displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Drawing on Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, McCarrick said, “These are the times of challenge when the vine growers need to work together and be more aware of the responsibility they hold to bring the wine of sweetness and the wine of strength to ourselves and to all our people.”
McCarrick then segued into a discussion of civility in public life. He lauded the “period of greater civility in the selection of our chief justice” and added, “I pray that that civility will continue because it is so important not just for good government, but for the good care of our people who look here to all of you and your colleagues for the kind of leadership that is not destructive or not too intensely partisan.”
The non-controversial nature of McCarrick’s remarks disappointed one Religious Right activist who attended the mass. The Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, issued a press statement after the event criticizing McCarrick.
“The scripture readings and prayers were very powerful this year,” said Schenck, a Protestant minister. “But I was surprised at how weak the sermon was in its content. Cardinal McCarrick spoke about civility in political discourse and ignored the much bigger issues facing the courts, namely the sanctity of human life, the sanctity of marriage and the public acknowledgement of God.”
Aside from Roberts, Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas, Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Stephen G. Breyer attended the mass at St. Mat\xadthew’s Cathedral. Also attending were White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Michael O. Leavitt, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
McCarrick may have felt no need to lecture Roberts because he feels optimistic that the new chief justice will vote in ways that please the church hierarchy. Roberts and his wife attend a conservative parish in Bethesda, Md., and Jane Sullivan Rob\xaderts is a member of the board of governors of the John Carroll Society, the group that sponsors the Red Mass.
Before Roberts was nominated, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote to Bush, urging him to select a justice to their liking.
“[I] urge you to consider for the Court qualified jurists who, pre-eminently, support the protection of human life from conception to natural death, especially of those who are unborn, disabled, or terminally ill,” wrote Bishop William S. Sylstad of Spokane. “I would ask you to consider jurists who are also cognizant of the rights of minorities, immigrants, and those in need; respect the role of religion and of religious institutions in our society and the protections afforded them by the First Amendment; recognize the value of parental choice in education; and favor restraining and ending the use of the death penalty.”