National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 21, 2003

Catholic nominee provokes debate

Democrats make Pryor's faith,
not his record, the issue

Alabama Attorney General William J. Pryor Jr.
-- Reuters/Tami Chappell
Integrity of Constitution demands questions about role of religion

I never thought I’d see the day when a faithful Catholic who, as a matter of faith and his conscience, rejects abortion as an assault on human life would be rejected as a federal judge because of that belief. That is exactly what is happening to William J. Pryor Jr., who was nominated by President Bush to the Federal Court of Appeals. He made the grave mistake of telling the judiciary committee that as a Catholic, he rejected abortion as a species of murder, but that he could and would abide by the law as written. In fact, he proved this when he was the attorney general of Alabama, where he enforced the law even when it went contrary to his personal belief.

The question for any judge to be appointed to any bench in this land is simply: Will he or she follow the law as written, no matter what his or her private beliefs? If the person answers yes, that is the end of the inquiry. To go further is to go beyond the law into personal beliefs that no one has a right to invade, question or dispute. But that is exactly what the Democrats in Congress are doing.

Such an inquiry was not good enough for Democrats on the committee, who later initiated a filibuster in the Senate against Pryor’s nomination. These Democrats could not find any instance when Pryor refused to apply the law because of his private beliefs but feared that, being a Catholic, he “might” or “could” veer in deference to his religious faith in matters of abortion. Abortion has become the litmus test for any Democrat for approval to any federal court. Of all the federal rights, the most fundamental in the eyes of Democrats is that of abortion, the right of rights. Therefore, a Catholic must hold to abortion not simply as a matter of law but as a matter of belief, and that is not law, but ideology. Indeed, it is a subtle form of anti-Catholicism.

The answer given by Sens. Edward Kennedy, John Kerry and Patrick Leahy to this charge is that this cannot be anti-Catholicism because they are Catholics. Therefore there is no question of religious bias here. The clear answer to this is that these senators have become known as anti-Catholic Catholics -- that is, Catholics who have denied their faith by publicly opposing a defined moral doctrine of the Catholic church, which is exactly what these senators have done in approving and forwarding all sorts of legislation on abortion. To the extent that these senators are pro-choice in personal belief, they have left the Catholic church. They fail the real Catholic test: sentire cum ecclesia -- think with the church.

This situation with Catholic judicial nominees today is remarkably similar to what happened to Sir Thomas More, who refused to swear the oath making Henry VIII head of the church in England. But it was not enough for More’s accusers that he be silent on the matter, which was sufficient according to law; they held that he had to believe it in his heart as being essentially true, which More could not do as a matter of conscience.

That is what the Democrats want of Catholic judicial nominees: belief in abortion as ideology, no matter that the candidate has shown himself obedient to the law in all his past history. That will ipso facto eliminate all future Catholic candidates, at least those Catholics who believe in what the church teaches.

More’s enemies could not break him legally, so they determined to kill him “legally” by beheading him on perjured evidence. The Democrats could not break Pryor legally since his record was so good, so they determine to kill his nomination via a Senate filibuster. In both cases, fidelity to their faith demanded no less.

Peter J. Riga is an attorney in Houston.


On Nov. 6, Senate Democrats for a second time blocked Alabama Attorney General William Pryor from attaining a seat on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. An earlier filibuster was held in July, when the Senate Judiciary Committee’s discussion of Pryor’s nomination deteriorated into a dramatic demonstration of the inappropriate intermingling of religion and politics. This meshing of religion and politics in the rhetoric of the Judiciary Committee cheapens religion and diminishes the recognized authority of the committee to speak on matters of constitutionality.

Religion plays a vital role in the life of our nation. Religious values inform an appropriate patriotism and inspire political action. But a person’s religious identity should stand outside the purview of inquiry related to a judicial nominee’s suitability for confirmation. The Constitution is clear: There shall be no religious test for public service.

The relevance of religion to deliberations of the Judiciary Committee should be twofold:

One, a concern that every judicial nominee embraces by word and example the religious liberty clause in the Constitution that protects the rich religious pluralism that characterizes this nation.

Two, a concern that no candidate for the judiciary embraces an intention of using that position to establish a particular religion or religious doctrine.

In other words, the issue is not religion, but the Constitution. Religion is a matter of concern only as it relates to support for the Constitution.

Make no mistake about it: There are people in this nation who would use the structures of government to establish their particular religion as the official religion of the nation. The Senate Judiciary Committee has an obligation to serve as a watchdog that sounds a warning when such a philosophy seeks endorsement within the judiciary.

It is wrong to establish the identity of a person’s religion as a strategy for advancing or defeating that person’s nomination for a judgeship. However, it is permissible, even obligatory, to inquire about how a person’s religion impacts that person’s decisions about upholding the Constitution and evaluating legislation. When a candidate for a federal bench has said, as did William Pryor, “Our political system seems to have lost God” and declares that the “political system must remain rooted in a Judeo-Christian perspective of the nature of government and the nature of man,” there is plenty for this committee to question.

The United States is the most religiously pluralistic nation on earth. For the sake of the stability of this nation, the vitality of religion in this nation, and the integrity of the Constitution, we have to get this matter right. Yes, religion is important. Discussions of religion are not out of place in the judiciary committee or any public office. But evaluations of candidates for public office on the basis of religion are wrong, and there should be no question that considerations of candidates who would alter the political landscape of America by using the judiciary to turn sectarian values into public laws should end in rejection.

The crucial line of questioning should revolve not around the issue of the candidate’s personal religion but of the candidate’s support for this nation’s vision of the role of religion. If the door to the judiciary must have a sign posted on it, let the sign read, “Those who would pursue the development of a nation opposed to religion or committed to a theocracy rather than a democracy need not apply.”

In 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy addressed the specific matter of Catholicism with surgical precision and political wisdom, stating that the issue was not what kind of church he believed in but what kind of America he believed in. Kennedy left no doubt about that belief: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” He pledged to address issues of conscience out of a focus on the national interest, not out of adherence to the dictates of one religion. He confessed that if at any point a conflict arose between his responsibility to defend the Constitution and the dictates of his religion, he would resign from public office. No less a commitment to religious liberty should be acceptable by any judicial nominee or by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who recommend for confirmation to the bench persons charged with defending the Constitution.

The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy is president of The Interfaith Alliance (, a nonpartisan, clergy-led grassroots organization dedicated to promoting the healing role of religion in public life and to challenging religious political extremism.

National Catholic Reporter, November 21, 2003

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