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October 2nd, 2010
11:15 PM ET

Washington's 'Red Mass' attracts top government leaders, controversy

CNN Supreme Court Producer Bill Mears filed this report from Washington:

The beautifully ornate Catholic church in the nation's capital has seen its share of history and controversy.

In 1963, the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle was the site of John F. Kennedy's funeral. After the service, on the steps outside, the slain president's young son famously saluted his father's memory.

But the church is also the site of an annual Mass that has drawn criticism for what some see as an unhealthy mix of politics, law and religion.

Washington's 57th annual "Red Mass," which celebrates the legal profession, will be held on Sunday - the day before the Supreme Court begins its new term.

Several justices traditionally attend, along with congressional leaders, diplomats, cabinet secretaries, and other dignitaries. Past presidents have also attended, though Barack Obama is not expected to appear this year.

It is a Catholic Mass, but power brokers of other faiths are asked to attend the invitation-only event. Justice Stephen Breyer, who is Jewish, is a regular.

The Mass "takes its name from the color of the vestments. ... (It) goes back centuries, to Rome, to France to England," Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl told CNN.

"There was the idea (to) bring all the people who are involved in the law... once a year so that together, they can simply pray for the wisdom of God."

The church, built starting in the 19th century, is considered one of Washington's hidden gems.

Tucked between modern office buildings a few blocks from the White House, it is a mix of architectural styles - a hint of ancient Rome, a splash from the Italian Renaissance and a definite Byzantine flavor.

St. Matthew, noted Monsignor Ronald Jameson, was the patron saint of civil servants - appropriate in a city where the federal government dominates the workforce.

A record six justices attended last year's Red Mass - including then-new member Sonia Sotomayor.

Critics of the service, however, find the attendance of leading decision-makers - including members of the highest court in the land - to be inappropriate.

"The truth is, this was set up as a way to basically lecture and give information to the justices," said Rev. Barry Lynn, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "There is no other institution that has this special way to talk to the justices on the Supreme Court."

The Red Mass was started in Washington in 1952 by the John Carroll Society, a lay Catholic group of prominent lawyers and professionals. Chief Justice John Roberts' wife Jane is currently an officer of the group.

Lynn, an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ, noted that the Mass was begun following several high court decisions disapproved of by the archdiocese.

"They figured if they got all the justices together and chatted them up in a worship service, they might be able to convince them to see the law their way," he said.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington strongly objects to that explanation of the Red Mass' beginnings.

Past homilies by Mass speakers have lamented the high court's ruling legalizing abortion and the constitutional separation of church and state.

Last year, U.S. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo made an unspecified reference to the rights of the unborn, saying those represented by lawyers are "more than clients... In some cases the clients are voiceless for they lack influence; in others they are literally voiceless, not yet with tongues and even without names, and require our most careful attention and radical support."

Other recent Red Mass events have been free of discussion on hot-button social and political issues, focusing on universal themes.

In 2008, Cardinal John Patrick Foley noted that many parts of the Bible "sound very much like American ideals" and urged members of the high court to build a society "of justice, of peace and of love."

One member of the court who no longer attends is Ruth Bader Ginsburg who, like Breyer, is Jewish. Ginsburg said she grew tired of being lectured to by Catholic officials.

"I went one year, and I will never go again, because this sermon was outrageously anti-abortion," Ginsburg said in the book Stars of David: Prominent Jews talk About Being Jewish, by Abigail Pogrebin.

"Even the Scalias - although they're much of that persuasion - were embarrassed for me."

Six Catholics now sit on the high court: Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor.

Newest Justice Elena Kagan, like Breyer and Ginsburg, is Jewish. She is not expected to attend the Red Mass.

Church officials insist that they do not attempt to persuade anyone who attends the service. Wuerl says the event provides a place to put aside the partisanship and troubles in the world to seek comfort in a shared community and a sacred place.

Americans have "been very careful about ... not allowing any one tradition or church to become the state church," he said. "But from the very beginning, we've always said we need to hear the voice of faith in all the discussion that is a part of determining what we want to do."

Lynn takes a different tack. "I don't think there is any doubt that people in that congregation - including the Supreme Court justices - are going to listen to what is said," he said.

"They might hear something phrased in a way you might never hear it in the court, but it might become a lingering factor in their decisions," Lynn said. "People who are concerned about the Red Mass worry about this kind of undue influence."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Abortion • Catholic Church • Courts • Politics

soundoff (277 Responses)
  1. Gina

    "Lynn takes a different tack. "I don't think there is any doubt that people in that congregation – including the Supreme Court justices – are going to listen to what is said," he said.

    "They might hear something phrased in a way you might never hear it in the court, but it might become a lingering factor in their decisions," Lynn said. "People who are concerned about the Red Mass worry about this kind of undue influence."

    You mean like they have been clearly influenced in Roe v. Wade, Doe v. Bolton, and all of the other rulings on legalizing abortion by the Church's teaching that abortion is murder?

    Keep something in mind-the mass is by invitation. No one is REQUIRED to attend. If they were then we'd have an issue with separation of Church and State. They're not even coerced into attending. Ginsburg attended once, and that was it. Her choice. President Obama has not attended, either, even though he's been invited, and most likely never will attend.

    Now to regulate the Church as to whether or not she decided to hold the Mass would be a violation of the 1st amendment. It goes both ways, people.

    October 5, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
  2. brad

    The Catholic church has been present in all of world history for 2000 years, in all kinds of environments. That's a lot of human experience. The U.S. courts by comparison, represent a stripling 200 year experiment in democracy. The Ginsberg's of the world are like adolescents insisting " but I want it MY way."

    October 4, 2010 at 10:48 am |
    • David Johnson

      I get a chance to vote for my government/judges. I can't vote for the Catholics or there would not be any.

      October 4, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
  3. Tea Party Gal

    Well said CatholicMom!

    I notice David Johnson was not to quick to answer your questions? Could it be he is stumped? LOL!

    @Dan Copier

    You said...don corpier

    maybe i am just stupid. tea party gal. what you say is a direct contradiction to what the neo-nazi members of the tea party members flap their gums about. did i miss something

    I don't know..hmm..you the one that said MAYBY I AM JUST STUPID? ! I think you miss alot.

    @David Johnson

    In the future, the Muslims should make a nice counter to your Jesus. LOL!

    LOL! And guess what? You will have to shut your mouth, hey will not tolerate your ignorant comments, like you make about Jesus. Try that with Mohammed...lol...you will be stoned!

    Buy some Berka's for your family David, and get yourself a muzzle.

    Btw...
    You said:

    Was the father of Jesus a Roman archer named Tiberius Abdes Pantera? A picture of his tombstone in Germany is in the book THE JESUS DYNASTY by James Tabor. The dates in which he lived would coincide in fathering Jesus combined with the fact he was stationed in Palestine. Also, Jewish critics of Jesus wrote in the Talmud his father was a Roman soldier named "Pantera."
    Back in the 1980s, Jane Schaberg wrote a scholarly book called THE ILLEGITIMACY OF JESUS which also touched on these controversial subjects.

    Well, this would explain a lot. LOL! Religion is soooo fake.

    When you shine the light of truth upon it, Religion just fizzles away.

    Anybody can write a book,lol. Do you have PROOF of your assumptions, based on some other deluded persons claim? Of course not! Just more of trying to convince yourself that Jesus and everything about him is wrong!

    When you shine the light of truth...What is the truth to you? Do you have PROOF?

    I guess I can understand your everyday one liners, trying to convince yourself he is dead.
    God is ALIVE and WELL! He is waiting for you David, with open arms.
    REPENT! Save yourself!

    October 4, 2010 at 8:07 am |
    • David Johnson

      @Tea Party Gal

      Yes, CatholicMom totally stumped me. Or, I wasn't on line when she posted. One of the two.

      As the Muslims grow in numbers and political strength, they will be a good deterrent to the Christian desire for a Christian theocracy. Thinking about it, makes me smile.

      Can't prove Jesus's last name was Pantera. But you got to admit, it is a lot more likely than the story that "god got him some".

      Jesus Pantera! I think that has a nice ring to it! LOL.

      October 4, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
    • Frank

      Pantera is just a band (\m/) and an animal. Don't go getting all wet over it, Davey.

      October 4, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
    • David Johnson

      @Tea Party Gal

      You said, "Anybody can write a book,lol. Do you have PROOF of your assumptions, based on some other deluded persons claim? Of course not! "

      LOL! LOL 'till I pee my pants!

      That's right. Anybody can write a book.

      Take the King James for instance.

      Do you have PROOF of your assumptions, based on some other deluded person's claim?

      You mean like the deluded gospel writers?

      You have just made the bestest case. Your book, your god should be taken on faith. But everything else requires proof.

      LOL. You are funny girl!

      October 4, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
    • David Johnson

      @Frank

      And Pantera might be Jesus's daddy! He showed Jesus's mommy his arrow! LOL! Can you say: "Whose Your Daddy?"

      Awwww! darn that is funny! I don't care who you are!

      October 4, 2010 at 4:35 pm |
    • Frank

      I think you should skip the stand up career.

      October 4, 2010 at 4:43 pm |
  4. matt

    Why so many comments on abortion and Jewish people? I think many need to read the article again because they missed the point.

    October 4, 2010 at 2:15 am |
  5. CJ

    Religion IS the root of all evil. Wize up world, and go secular; secularcoalition.com

    October 3, 2010 at 11:51 pm |
    • CJ

      Early christians were labeled as athiests by non-christians because of their dis-belief in pagan gods;http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism
      Eh,...whats in a name? Its your own personal beliefs (or dis-beliefs) that count....remember, its not always "what you pray" that counts, but what you DONT pray."

      October 4, 2010 at 12:54 am |
  6. Tea Party Gal

    David Johnson

    I fear the Christian Right NOT the Jewish people. I have several friends who are Jewish. I have been in their homes and they in mine. My daughter hung out with their daughters.

    God help us if the Christian Right comes into power in November. The Muslims, the Jews, gay rights, woman's rights the old and the young – all will be in trouble. All because of a god who isn't there.

    It would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

    All because of a god who isn't there. WRONG!

    God Bless America, Land that I love.......Surely you have heard the song.

    We are simply going to have it back, under God, where it belongs. Yes, sins will be harder to do...but, ho hum. Take a chill pill and stop your complaining.

    October 3, 2010 at 4:00 pm |
    • Tea Party Gal

      BTW...God is ALIVE and WELL!

      October 3, 2010 at 4:01 pm |
    • don corpier

      maybe i am just stupid. tea party gal. what you say is a direct contradiction to what the neo-nazi members of the tea party members flap their gums about. did i miss something.

      October 3, 2010 at 8:39 pm |
    • David Johnson

      The Religious Right is hoping to accomplish through legislation, what they had hoped Jesus would do on his return.

      No one has heard from Jesus in 2000+ years. Probably 'cause he is dead.

      I don't think you will get that big a majority. The consti tution will remain unchanged. The founding fathers were wise to demand a separation of church and state. The 14th amendment will protect Roe Vs. Wade. Women's right to choose will remain.

      Science is proving your god unnecessary. Most of Europe has left Jesus behind.

      In the future, the Muslims should make a nice counter to your Jesus. LOL!

      October 3, 2010 at 9:39 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      David Johnson,

      You said, ‘Science is proving your god unnecessary. Most of Europe has left Jesus behind.’

      Just what part of God is unnecessary? What part of breathing your next breath is no longer necessary? You don’t need the sun to shine anymore? Please don’t convince God of that! You don’t think God is necessary for the change of the seasons? It is His clock-work that permits it. God is necessary to everything you can name…without Him, nothing would exist! No thing!

      It is so strange to hear someone say, ‘It is like death…there is nothing.’ So people just exist for their mere lives, from just days, weeks, or months for aborted babies, and longer for others up to and over 100 years and then NOTHING….none of it has any meaning for eternity?…nothing is sacred about life to a person like that? How does one come to think like that?

      October 3, 2010 at 11:20 pm |
    • David Johnson

      CatholicMom

      You said, "Just what part of God is unnecessary? What part of breathing your next breath is no longer necessary? You don’t need the sun to shine anymore? Please don’t convince God of that! You don’t think God is necessary for the change of the seasons? It is His clock-work that permits it. God is necessary to everything you can name…without Him, nothing would exist! No thing!"

      That is just dumb, for so many reasons.

      The sun will shine for the next 4.5 billion years or so. Earth will be destroyed in about 500 million years due to the sun's running out of fuel. We need to be gone before this. No god, no magic in this. It's Science! LOL

      You said, "You don’t think God is necessary for the change of the seasons?"

      No, our four seasons exist because of the tilt of the earth on its axis and because of the earth's orbit around the sun. Again, god is not responsible for this. It's Science! LOL

      You said, "God is necessary to everything you can name…without Him, nothing would exist! No thing!"

      Give me an example of something god is necessary for? LOL!

      You said, "It is so strange to hear someone say, ‘It is like death…there is nothing.’ So people just exist for their mere lives, from just days, weeks, or months for aborted babies, and longer for others up to and over 100 years and then NOTHING….none of it has any meaning for eternity?…nothing is sacred about life to a person like that? How does one come to think like that?"

      We live on through our children. Through the things we loved. A god is not necessary for me to feel fulfilled.

      All that we are, is in our brains. When we die, we cease to be.

      It seems strange to me, that anyone needs a god. A god is like Linus's blanket.

      October 4, 2010 at 4:01 pm |
  7. David Johnson

    Catholics have always had a problem with god's chosen people. That's a fact.

    October 3, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
    • David Johnson

      I fear the Christian Right NOT the Jewish people. I have several friends who are Jewish. I have been in their homes and they in mine. My daughter hung out with their daughters.

      God help us if the Christian Right comes into power in November. The Muslims, the Jews, gay rights, woman's rights the old and the young – all will be in trouble. All because of a god who isn't there.

      It would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

      October 3, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      David Johnson,

      Don't your Jewish friends believe in God?

      October 3, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
    • don corpier

      Catholics have always had a problem with anybody that did not believe in their BS. the amazing part is they constantly blabber about jesus christ. christ was a devout jew not catholic. what do you expect from a religion that condones genocide and child molestation.

      October 3, 2010 at 8:50 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      condones genocide and child molestation.
      Don corpier,

      Yes, Jesus’ Mother was a Jewish girl; Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He did this by founding His Church, the Catholic Church, which is just a name that means ‘universal’; and He also established the Sacraments by which He could continue to feed us while we traverse our earthly journey.

      October 3, 2010 at 9:23 pm |
    • David Johnson

      @CatholicMom

      2 do not believe. We have hope for the 3rd.

      October 3, 2010 at 9:29 pm |
    • David Johnson

      @CatholicMom

      Was the father of Jesus a Roman archer named Tiberius Abdes Pantera? A picture of his tombstone in Germany is in the book THE JESUS DYNASTY by James Tabor. The dates in which he lived would coincide in fathering Jesus combined with the fact he was stationed in Palestine. Also, Jewish critics of Jesus wrote in the Talmud his father was a Roman soldier named "Pantera."
      Back in the 1980s, Jane Schaberg wrote a scholarly book called THE ILLEGITIMACY OF JESUS which also touched on these controversial subjects.

      Well, this would explain a lot. LOL! Religion is soooo fake.

      When you shine the light of truth upon it, Religion just fizzles away.

      October 3, 2010 at 10:56 pm |
    • Frank

      "Catholics have always had a problem with god's chosen people. That's a fact."

      You claim not to believe in God but you believe that Jews are His chosen people? HUH?

      All people are chosen, just not everyone answers the call, as I said before.

      October 6, 2010 at 6:12 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.