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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