Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Roger B. Taney, died on October 12, 1864. Taney had been appointed to the Court by President Andrew Jackson in 1836 and had sworn into office seven Presidents. He was the first Catholic to be appointed to the Supreme Court. Taney, a Marylander, was pro-slavery and had authored the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision which ruled that Blacks are not citizens of the United States and have no standing in law to sue. Needless to day, the Justice and President Lincoln did not see eye to eye on the matters of the day. Taney’s death provided Lincoln with the opportunity to name a new Chief Justice and he chose Salmon P. Chase. The Republican Senate confirmed Chase the same day he was nominated. (Curiously enough the Presidential Election of November 8th 1864 had intervened between Taney’s death and Chase’s nomination.)
Taney’s funeral was on the morning of Saturday, October 15, 1864. Shortly before 6 AM, the presidential carriage rolled up to the North Door of the White House and President Lincoln, attended by Secretary of State Seward and Postmaster General William Dennison entered the carriage for the short ride across Lafayette Square to the Taney Residence. There, in the parlor by Taney’s coffin, the President stood respectfully while a priest from Saint Patrick’s parish recited the traditional Latin prayers for the faithfully departed. Lincoln stayed until Taney’s coffin was closed and carried from the house and placed in the horse-drawn hearse and then the President returned to the White House for his day’s work. The Civil War was still his chief preoccupation.
After leaving the President standing in the road, holding his hat in his hands, Taney’s coffin was conveyed to the old Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station near the site of what is today the National Gallery of Art. A train was provided to take the funeral party to Frederick, Maryland where a Requiem Mass was sung in Saint John the Evangelist Church, Taney’s home parish, and where he was interred in the family plot in the churchyard. No representatives of the Administration attended the Mass or internment.
I was somewhat surprised that today’s funeral for Justice Antonin Scalia followed the current liturgical rites. Given the Justice’s own predilection for the pre-conciliar rites as well as his son’s own fondness for the Extraordinary Form I would have expected the Mass to have been a Requiem Mass with Black vestments and at the old “high altar” versus apsidem. In fact it was a good example of how the Novus Ordo can be celebrated on a formal occasion in a cathedral setting. I did notice, however, that the sign of peace was omitted. And as for the homily—it was extraordinary; I don’t recall hearing a better one for such an occasion, or for that matter, on any occasion. It had theological depth and personal touch. It shows that Father Scalia, like his father, is a man of intellectual probity as well as being superbly articulate.
Finally, the word going around the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Arlington is that the Scalia family and Father Paul Scalia in particular, asked President Obama not to attend the Funeral Mass. There was some apprehension that the scene at Senator Kennedy’s Funeral with Cardinal O’Malley’s effusive greeting of the President, would be repeated with Cardinal Wuerl. Vice-President Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, for their part maintained a very discreet presence at the funeral. The Scalias, like many conservative Catholics, find the President to be a symbol of secularism in modern American Public Life. Father Scalia made the point in his homily—and a point that I agree with—that not only must we not banish faith from the public square, but we as Christians must bring our faith into that public square. If it is true that the Scalia family expressed their preference that the President not attend the funeral, they should take responsibility for it rather than let the President be the scapegoat for those have criticized him for not being present. However, again, history shows us that there is no precedent requiring a President to be at the funeral service of a Supreme Court Justice.