It didn't take long after the announcement of Samuel Alito's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court for the finger-counting to begin. Everyone knows Antonin Scalia is a strict Catholic, and John Roberts' Catholicism was well-broadcast during his confirmation hearings. There's scarcely an American who doesn't know that "Kennedy" is a sure giveaway Catholic name, though few know that Clarence Thomas joined the Catholic Church as a young child and, after a decade-long flirtation with evangelical Protestantism, now attends Catholic mass.
Add them all up, and the Court is just one justice short of a 5-4 Catholic majority. Alito, if confirmed, would provide that deciding vote.

The "Catholic majority" possibility became the instant-reaction fun fact of this nomination. "Catholics could get majority on High Court," the Associated Press headline announced. The New York Times and Cox News Service ran similar stories. Conservatives issued their now-traditional warning that the confirmation process had better be "free of any attack on Judge Alito's Catholic faith and personal beliefs." Liberals pointed to a potential Catholic majority as proof of the imminent overturning of Roe v. Wade. Both sides appeared to automatically equate "Catholic" with "pro-life."

Yet, as anyone who followed last year's presidential election knows, that calculation is not always accurate. Running throughout John Kerry's campaign was the question of whether or not he would be denied Communion on any given Sunday because of his pro-choice views. Over the past 20 years, dozens of Catholic politicians-mostly Democratic, but including some Republicans such as former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge-have been targeted by Catholic leaders for their pro-choice views in a conscious strategy to enforce adherence to Catholic teaching.

With the issue of abortion resting primarily in the province of the courts, and with the prevalence of Catholic judges in the judiciary system now highlighted, the specter of a majority-Catholic Supreme Court raises an obvious question: How long will it be before U.S. bishops begin applying pressure to Catholic judges who strike down abortion restrictions?

The mere posing of that question would probably turn Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, several shades of crimson and mauve, and will likely prompt cries of "anti-Catholic bigotry!" to ring forth from conservative press conferences. And yet an honest look at the Church's statements on the special responsibility of Catholic public officials to uphold Church teaching on abortion must conclude that they do not exempt officials in judicial positions.

The roots of the Church's efforts to influence the decisions of Catholic public officials on the issue of abortion can be traced back to the early 1970s, when the Church was struggling to define its post-Vatican II role as a more public institution at the same time that the Roe decision made abortion a federal issue. The combination of specific Catholic teaching on abortion, the bishops' new mission to communicate such teaching to the world, and external efforts to liberalize abortion laws was a provocative one. Within days of the Roe decision, the sitting president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia, condemned the decision as "bad logic and bad law" and proclaimed it "an unspeakable tragedy for the nation." In quick succession, the NCCB issued a statement calling passage of a pro-life constitutional amendment "a priority of the highest order," established the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment, and sent four cardinals to testify before a Senate subcommittee on the issue of constitutional amendments.

The bishops are political men...

_Related Features
  • The Catholic Judge and Roe v. Wade
  • Supreme Court Judges: Faith Does Matter
  • Faith & the Court: Complete Coverage
  • When the bishops found that their efforts to convince Catholic laypersons to support pro-life legislation-and oppose personal use of birth control and abortion-were unsuccessful, they turned their attention to more visible targets: Catholic politicians. In 1989, a California bishop told a state assemblywoman that she was required to refrain from taking Communion because she supported abortion rights. The next year, the archbishop of Guam threatened to excommunicate any Catholic politician who voted against a bill prohibiting abortion except when the life of the mother was threatened-the most restrictive abortion legislation in any U.S. state or territory. That same year, Bishop Reiss of Trenton announced the pro-choice Catholic politicians were barred from speaking at church-sponsored events, and New York's Cardinal O'Connor wrote in diocesan newspapers that these same politicians "must be warned that they are at risk of excommunication."