I ordinarily steer away from explicitly political agendas on this blog as too many of my friends among the krazies are caesaropapists who reduce Catholicism to the Tea Party at prayer, but I think there is something worth reflecting on, from a religious point of view, about the legacy of Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia. So, let’s start—as I usually do—out in left field. I would like you to punctuate the following sentence.
“A voice cries in the desert prepare the way of the Lord make straight his paths”
Christians will almost invariably punctuate it to say: “A Voice cries in the desert: prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” That is how Matthew (3:3); Mark (1:3); Luke (3:4); and John (1:23) interpreted it to speak of John the Baptizer. The voice cries out in the desert. But Isaiah, speaking of the return of the Jewish People from their captivity in Babylon (Is 40:3) had actually written “A voice cries: in the desert prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” It is not the crier who is in the desert, but the way of the Lord which we must prepare in the desert between Babylon and Jerusalem to bring the captives home.
We encounter this issue all the time in scripture: it is called hermeneutics. How do you interpret the text? Are you bound to the text’s original meaning or can you, like the Evangelists, put new layers of interpretation on an old text to make that text “live” in your particular day and place? The Word of God, after all, is a Living Word whose meaning is never exhausted.
While so-called “evangelicals” often insist on what they term a “biblical literalism” even the sacred authors themselves borrowed quotes from one another and significantly shaded the meaning in so doing to reflect their particular experience of God acting in their time and place.
Isaiah (7:10-16) writes
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz: Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as Sheol, or high as the sky! But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!” Then he said: Listen, house of David! Is it not enough that you weary human beings? Must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel. Curds and honey* he will eat so that he may learn to reject evil and choose good; for before the child learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of those two kings whom you dread shall be deserted.
Isaiah was writing of a very specific event. In the days of Ahaz, king of Judah (735-715 BC), Jerusalem was under siege by the kings of Israel and Aram (Syria) who were trying for force Judah into an alliance with them against the king of Assyria. This siege was in the first year of Ahaz’s reign (735 BC). Isaiah was encouraging Ahaz not to join the alliance, which would have, had he entered it, brought destruction to Jerusalem as it did to Israel and Syria when Assyria ultimately defeated them. Isaiah refers to the fact that the Queen, Abijah, was pregnant and promises Ahaz that by the time the child is old enough for soft foods (curds and honey), the siege will be over. Some biblical scholars say that the promised son is Hezekiah, successor to Ahaz, and perhaps the most devout and religious king of Judah. (There is a possible problem, however as the dating of Hezekiah’s birth is usually given before the accession of Ahaz to the throne. We are uncertain of the historical dating, in fact, of Hezekiah’s birth and so this tie of Hezekiah to the prophesied prince remains a possibility.) The point is, however, that Isaiah has a specific historic event in mind. It does not involve a virgin (Isaiah uses the word for a young woman, regardless of virginal status) though it does involve a promised son. Matthew (1:23) takes this same quote and makes it say:
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel….”
To be fair to Matthew, he was quoting the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures) in which the Hebrew term for a “young woman” (עלמה ) has already be translated into Greek as παρθενος which connotes a young woman who is a virgin. Nevertheless, Matthew takes the Isaiah quote totally out of historical context and applies it to an entirely new situation. We can see that ahistorical interpretation of texts is nothing new but that we have long understood that the reader is free—within some less-than-precisely-defined limits—to impose meanings on a text beyond those intended by the original author. As a historian I like to stay close to the original author’s conscious intent, but I also realize that such expectations are unrealistic. The text means what we say it means, not only what the original author(s) intended.
In our Catholic Tradition we have a long history of textual interpretation. The Fathers of the Church took the biblical texts and wove wonderful theological insights out of them—insights far beyond what the evangelists and the apostles (not to mention the Hebrew Prophets and authors) ever meant. The Word is a living Word and while we interpret it according to Tradition we are, and always have been, open to new layers of meaning to emerge. It is the collective wisdom of the Church—magisterium, theologians, and consensus fidelium in harmony—that determines the validity of these unfolding insights into our ancient faith. This is what we call the Development of Doctrine.
I bring this subject up as a comment on the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice Scalia was probably if not the brightest, then at least the most articulate, member of the current court. He was a devout Catholic, though not particularly enamored of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council or recent popes regarding the role of the Church in social issues. (His absence from the recent address of Pope Francis to the Joint Session of Congress last October was noted.) His contrariness was not limited to his faith. Justice Scalia was not a man who much favored the world in which we live. He carved out a religious niche for himself where he could ignore those current Church practices and teachings with which he disagreed. His son, the Reverend Paul Scalia, is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington Virginia and, like his father, is a man of exceptional intelligence and charm but also, like his father, has a draw towards certain aspects of the retro-Catholicism of the pre-conciliar years.
In his role on the Court, Justice Scalia espoused a doctrine often called “originalism” which maintains that the Constitution should be interpreted strictly according to the mind of the men who framed it. This presents many challenges as the world in which we live raises problems unforeseen by the Founding Fathers and for which the Constitution does not give us adequate guidance. The framers of our Constitution did not believe in such things as racial equality, the rights of women to participate in the political processes, or free public education for all. Much of our worldview—and basic values as Americans (and even as Christians) is the product of an evolution of ideas over the 240 years since our Republic was founded.
One of the great strict constructionists of American Constitutional theory was our third president, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson bitterly opposed Presidents Washington and Jefferson for actions that he saw as beyond their constitutional warrant. But then Mr. Jefferson found out when he was President and wanted to buy Louisiana from Napoleon that the Constitution had failed to foresee such an important opportunity. Hoisted on his own petard, Jefferson went ahead and bought the territory regardless of its constitutionality. Few people stick to their principles when they become inconvenient. Strict constructionism, or it variant, “originalism,”may sound like a principle of fidelity but simply does not work. The Constitution, like the Scriptures, are a living text and while we are bound to interpret it consistently with its history of interpretation (in the case of the scriptures, in the patristic Tradition, in the case of the Constitution with juridical precedence) and we are not free to make things up as we go along, we cannot force a 2016 foot into a 1787 shoe. Our Founding Fathers were men of their time. For the greater part they believed that the white race was superior to the other races and deserved to have the law favor their interests. In writing the Constitution they kept the institution of slavery intact and counted Black slaves as 2/3rds a “person” for purposes of the census. Our Founding Fathers did not grant Citizenship to free people of color and the Constitution left voting eligibility to the several States which generally granted it only to white males of property. Despite Abigail Adam’s plea to her husband to “remember the ladies,” the ladies were legally little better off than free Blacks.
Other than for free Blacks—and the occasional Jew who was perceived by the Founding Fathers more as a low-Church Christian—there was practically no diversity in the America of our 1787 Constitution. There were no Mexicans swarming over the yet-to-be-built wall on the border. Our only contact with Muslims was the USS Enterprise fighting the galleys of Tripoli, and that actually wasn’t for another 14 years yet. There were some French-speaking Catholics who had found themselves on the wrong side of the Maine Border when the 1783 Treaty of Paris set the boundaries with Canada but they stuck pretty much to themselves and to the backwoods. They weren’t granted the vote by Massachusetts to which they, at the time, belonged. There were also German Catholics settling on the Pennsylvania Frontier. Maryland Catholics were somewhat at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Jews and were perceived as High Church WASPs, very much part of the American establishment. There certainly were Gays and Lesbians—Pierre L’Enfant, the designer of our nation’s capital for one—but discretion kept their private proclivities out of public discussion. Back in colonial days we had a rumored cross-dressing Royal Governor of New York, Lord Cornbury, but that sort of thing was decidedly out of fashion by the machismo days of our Revolution.
All this historical reconstructionism led Mister Justice Scalia to be somewhat primitive himself when it came to issues of race and civil rights. He was ardently opposed to any sort of affirmative action, not so much color-blind as just blind to the social complexities created by systemic poverty: inadequate and unequal public education, racial profiling, inequitable access to public services, and the other disproportionate burdens placed on the permanent underclass. He was able himself to break through barriers of immigrant poverty because it was not the sort of systemic barriers that block those, of whatever race, who are disadvantaged by generational privation and this led him to the naïve conclusion that with enough gumption and natural ambition, anyone else could do the same. It is sad really that he never appreciated his own unique genius that gave him a step-up that people of lesser ability lack. He came far in life—far further than almost any of us could even dream—but he did so presuming that his extraordinary intelligence and exceptional charm were in fact within the grasp of any and of all. As intelligent as he was, he fell for the lie of equal opportunity for all. Humility can be a vice when it blinds us to see that what we have is a gift from beyond ourselves and permits us to think that we are no different than others and we did it on our own.
I fear that Father Scalia, like so many sons of great fathers, is cut from the same bolt of cloth as was the Justice. He holds to a lily-white Catholicism of the respectable upper-middle class establishment. The Church today, like our nation, is far more complex than it was in the days of Jefferson and Madison or the days of Pius X and Pius XII. Toothpaste does not go back into the tube. While nothing haunts the soul like plainsong and Mozart thrills the ear attuned to European culture, the Church today pulsates with the rhythms and harmonies of Africa. Theology today comes not out of the aged faculties of European universities but from the Comunidades Eclesiales de Base in Latin America. (Even in the Roman universities the professors are increasingly from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.) Where is the future of the Church? Where are the vocations: India, Nigeria, Columbia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Kenya… that gives us the answer.
There is certainly room in American Catholicism for the Ave Verum Corpus and even for Mass VIII. They have been and they remain part of our cultural heritage. I hate ugly churches and ugly church art as much as the next dilettante. I’m even more inclined to write a check for a nun in her habit than one in an ill-fitting skirt and cardigan. (Sorry, Sisters, I am 100% behind the LCWR but this is just a gut thing, I can’t help myself.) But at the end of the day, Pius XII is in his tomb and when the Gospel Choir from Holy Apostles comes to sing at our Mass, the church is packed out to the rafters. At the end of the day Mike and Ray, the married guys down the block, are running the parish team to help out at the shelter next month. At the end of day, it is Barb carrying the cross and Susie the thurible at 11:00 Mass. At the end of the day no one in our parish still receives on the tongue. At the end of the day 30 people come to the traditional Stations of the Cross and 350 come to the youth “living stations.” At the end of the day, we are more invested in our outreach program in Haiti than we are about putting the tabernacle back in the center of our sanctuary. We remember when we had 3 priests and they brought communion to the shut-ins every first Friday. Now we have only one priest but 30 Eucharistic ministers who bring communion to our shut-in’s every Sunday—and some more often. The neighboring parish has a “youth ministry” with an “adoration hour” and rosary and 15 kids. Our 95 kids make 450 sandwiches every month and run them into the city for the homeless. And our kids can tell you about the Gospel of Luke and the Pauline letters and Evangelium Vitae and Laudato Si.
No, retro-Catholicism and retro-constitutionalism are both no more than museum pieces. Both in regards to our faith and to our politics there is Tradition that establishes canons for growth and development but they do not remain static. We occupy an unique place in history and God calls us to be faithful in that time and place, not in some mythic now-past golden age when all was perfect.