If Catholics in America tend to fall into two broad categories--those who dissent from controversial Church teaching and those who subscribe to it--Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts, Jr., would appear to fall into the latter category. He attends Church of the Little Flower, a Maryland parish that heterodox Catholics would regard as an outpost of traditional Catholicism.

Located in a prosperous, forested neighborhood of Bethesda, Little Flower displays the marks of a parish in conformity with official Catholic teaching: a large picture of Pope Benedict XVI at the moment of his papal election greets visitors as they enter the church; there is a Vatican flag on the altar; the bulletin board in the foyer announces the beginning of the canonization process for Pope John Paul II; pro-life literature is prominently available; the parish newsletter encourages congregants "to send your best wishes and prayer intentions to Pope Benedict XVI.by e-mail to benedictxvi@vatican.va."

Ultra-conservative Catholics would consider the parish too modern: It uses altar girls and lay Eucharistic ministers, a now-standard practice in the archdiocese of Washington, D.C. But Catholics who dissent from Church teaching wouldn't gravitate to it either. The parish's basic respect for the magisterium of the universal Catholic Church is seen in small ways--at the Mass I attended, the priest bowed during the Nicene Creed, a practice some liberal Catholics reject as spiritually stodgy--and in larger ways--the pastor, Monsignor Peter J. Vaghi, upholds the Vatican's teaching on artificial birth control, an issue American priests have tended to relativize, dismiss or ignore since Vatican II.

On the Church of the Little Flower's website, which links to the Vatican and promotes traditional piety and devotions such as "Forty Hours of Eucharistic Adoration," Monsignor Vaghi has posted a meditation on chastity. Quoting the archbishop of Bologna, he said that every "sexual act performed outside marriage" is "gravely illicit," but "even within marriage there can be an exercise of sexuality that does not respect its moral value: when the conjugal act does not truly respect the dignity of the person of one's spouse, as well as when it is deprived, through a positive intervention of the spouses, of its natural capacity to give origin to new life."

In another meditation, Monsignor Vaghi staunchly defended the Church's teaching on abortion. "After all, since Roe v. Wade in l973, the Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion, there have been over 44 million abortions, young children dying before they had the opportunity to enjoy life outside the womb as we enjoy life," he wrote. "Our church is always, and will always, be on the side of life, life from conception until natural death. And it is precisely because Jesus took on life, took on flesh and ennobled it by becoming man and like us in everything but sin that we value human life so much, that we were born in His image and reborn in Christ Jesus."

Several press accounts have noted that John Roberts and his wife Jane Sullivan Roberts followed Monsignor Vaghi from St. Patrick's, his old parish in Washington, D.C., to Little Flower, and that Vaghi presided at their wedding. This has given conservative Catholic leaders who respect Vaghi confidence that Roberts is not cut from the same liberal cloth as Catholic Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Observing that the Robertses are close to Monsignor Vaghi, Austin Ruse, president of the Culture of Life Foundation, told the press that "For people like me who are reading the tea leaves, it is another marker that we can breathe easy." Leonard Leo, who is executive vice president of the Federalist Society and spearheads "Catholic outreach" for the Republican Party, has also assured conservative Catholics that Roberts will not follow the same path as Anthony Kennedy.

A "serious" and "humble" Catholic
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  • John Roberts apparently has always taken his Catholic faith seriously. As a high school student, he was a sacristan, assisting with sacristy upkeep and care of the sacred vessels used in the mass. His parents took him to mass faithfully and sent him to La Lumiere, an all-male Catholic prep school. There, according to the Washington Post, he excelled at theology among other topics. "Assigned to prepare a 15-minute oral report for theology class, Roberts plowed through seven books, then lectured his fellow students for three consecutive days of class," the Post reported.

    Jane Roberts was also steeped in Catholicism. She grew up in an Irish Catholic family in New York City, attended an all-girl Catholic high school, and then went to Holy Cross College, where she remains a trustee.

    "They are devout Catholics," the Rev. Michael C. McFarland, Holy Cross College president, has said to reporters.

    While John Roberts' public pro-life record seems restricted to one brief against Roe v. Wade written during his tenure as a lawyer in the Reagan administration, Jane Roberts has been a diligent and open pro-life advocate, providing legal assistance to Feminists for Life. She is also active in the John Carroll Society, an organization that encourages Catholic lawyers (she is a partner in a Washington, D.C. law firm) to practice their profession according to high moral standards. Monsignor Vaghi is chaplain to the group.

    The Robertses' reputation is one of modesty-the press have reported that friends can't recall Jane Roberts ever swearing-and a low-key but conscientious adherence to the tenets of their faith. Writing in the Washington Post's Style Section last Friday, Hanna Rosin suggested that the couple's decision to adopt their two children stemmed in part from a fidelity to Catholic teaching that prohibits many forms of fertility treatment.

    John Roberts, it would appear, isn't a cafeteria Catholic, picking and choosing which teachings of his religion to accept. Former Justice Department lawyer Shannen W. Coffin, a friend of John Roberts, was quoted in The New York Times saying that this should reassure rather than dismay observers, as it means he will approach his job without arrogance.

    "John's faith is his faith, and his approach to the law is a separate issue," says Coffin. "If it has any effect, it is in the sense of restraint. the role of the judge is not to be the center of the universe. It stems from the sort of humility of a faithful person," Coffin said-a commendation appropriate to Little Flower's most famous parishioner.
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