October 3rd, 2010
05:39 PM ET

Biden, 5 Supreme Court justices attend controversial 'Red Mass'

CNN's Lauren Pratapas and Bill Mears filed this report from Washington:

Vice President Joe Biden joined five Supreme Court justices to attend Sunday's annual Red Mass, the Roman Catholic service for the courts that has drawn criticism in recent years.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas attended the service, held at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, on the eve of the court's new term.

The Mass was started in 1952 by the John Carroll Society, a lay Catholic group of prominent lawyers and professionals, to celebrate the legal profession. But the event has drawn criticism in recent years for what many see as an unhealthy mix of politics, religion and the law.

The mass is a Catholic service, but power brokers of other faiths are asked to attend the invitation-only event. Critics have called the attendance of leading decision-makers, including members of the highest court in the land, inappropriate.

Past homilies by individual speakers have lamented the high court's ruling legalizing abortion and the constitutional separation of church and state, although most recent Red Mass ceremonies have avoided hot-button social and political issues to focus on universal themes. Church officials insist they do not attempt to lobby or seek to persuade anyone who attends the service.

Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, who gave this year's sermon, told parishioners the church understands the "nearly overwhelming complexity of the climate which envelops the practice of law and the administration of justice today."

"No informed observer can fail to acknowledge that the social and cultural pluralism of our times - not to mention the relentless and sometimes pitiless public scrutiny to which you are subjected - makes the work of judges and lawyers today very hard indeed," he said.

The archbishop also asserted that laws are based upon certain principles: "the pursuit of the common good through respect for the natural law, the dignity of the human person, the inviolability of innocent life from conception to natural death, the sanctity of marriage, justice for the poor, protection of minors, and so on."

Di Noia later decried a trend toward "exclusive humanism" and said, "That innocent human life is now so broadly under threat has seemed to many of us one of the signs of this growing peril." Washington archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs told CNN afterwards that the reference to "innocent human life" was meant "broadly," referring to "all life that is at risk, not just simply the unborn, but the fragility of all human life."

All the justices who attended Sunday are Catholics except Breyer, who is Jewish. The court is currently made up of six Catholics and three Jews, including its newest member, Elena Kagan.

One member of the court who no longer attends is Ruth Bader Ginsburg who, like Breyer and Kagan, is Jewish. Ginsburg has said she grew tired of being lectured 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 author Abigail Pogrebin. "Even the Scalias - although they're much of that persuasion - were embarrassed for me."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Courts • Joe Biden • Politics

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