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. Joy

    I live in south Louisiana and our Diocese also has a "red Mass" every year. It's just a way of asking special blessings on those in a certain profession and guidance for them through that year. This is a good thing and that's all. Prayer for those making important decisions with other people's lives can't hurt. God bless each & every one of you.

    October 3, 2010 at 8:53 am |
  2. SilverHair

    What a rag. Believe a thimble full of what you read posted on the Internet, and just as little of what you see on the Internet or TV. The only thing remotely reliable is a live performance – that is until lip-sync became an art.

    October 3, 2010 at 8:44 am |
  3. Tom


    October 3, 2010 at 8:43 am |
  4. Tony T

    You stated in the article "Obaman will not attend this year".....making it seem like he attended in the past? Has he? FYI: MANY LOCAL AND STATE BAR ASSOCIATIONS HOLD A "RED MASS" FOR THE LEGAL PROFESSION SO IT'S NOT SOMETHING UNIQUE TO WASHINGTON DC!!!! By the way, you are anti-CATHOLIC.

    October 3, 2010 at 8:33 am |
  5. joeshmoe

    Are you people serious... Do you have no faith in your justices , and elected officials? Do you really think that an 30 min homily (speech) is gonna influence these people that much? Crazy... The jews run DC anyway and public media (real reason terrorist hate us) so a little jesus talk on a sunday, don't think its gonna be that influential

    October 3, 2010 at 8:28 am |
    • NoWay

      At least some sense here.

      October 3, 2010 at 8:37 am |
    • don corpier

      you are a real moron. the supreme court justices that attend this little catholic propaganda session are catholic and make every effort to shove catholic beliefs down our throats. i dont like you little nazi thugs and neither does the majority of the worlds population. why dont you folks murder several million more people like you have done for the last two thousand years. crawl back under your popes skirt. you cant even use your real name. gutless

      October 3, 2010 at 8:27 pm |
  6. Maplewood

    Roman Catholic apologists are as delusional as evangelical atheists. If ANY other organization had a network of child molesting employees spread over at least the western world, and then systematically tried to cover it up for decades, governments and politicians would be screaming for the demise of the organization and the round up of the culprits. But the flock (appropriately named) would rather repress these actions and finger point at other groups. As far as blaming protestants, it should be noted that the Roman Catholic Church is the original protestant sect. THEY chose to claim supremacy over the other Bishops. They chose to try to justify this power grab by actions like capitalizing the word "catholic" in the Nicene Creed and thinking that the barely literate flock would swallow it. Please, just be thankful your sect isn't the object of large political groups, like the Anti-Masonic party of the 19th century.

    October 3, 2010 at 8:25 am |
    • CatholicMom


      You said, ‘ it should be noted that the Roman Catholic Church is the original protestant sect’.

      The Catholic Church has never been protestant! The first protestant was Martin Luther, a Catholic priest; when he left the Catholic Church, he started the first protestant ecclesial community…Lutheranism, in the 1500's.

      October 3, 2010 at 4:14 pm |
    • don corpier

      thank you for the truth

      October 3, 2010 at 8:14 pm |
    • Frank

      "it should be noted that the Roman Catholic Church is the original protestant sect."

      That's so nonsensical that it's hilarious! Lol!

      October 6, 2010 at 5:59 am |
  7. Help here

    Hey Guys, would you visit SaveStan.ORG a friend of mine with 4 babies is fighting for his life we are trying to spread the word....... Thanks

    October 3, 2010 at 7:54 am |
  8. Erma Goon

    You've all gone completely meh'uhl..

    October 3, 2010 at 7:44 am |
  9. Bozole Clun

    So who is threatening us with Sharia law?!

    October 3, 2010 at 7:44 am |
  10. Murray

    So much for the separation of Church and State. 🙁

    October 3, 2010 at 7:37 am |
  11. Greg

    When will the world stop following the man in a dress wearing red slippers? I was raised catholic and attended their schools. I have found that men-exclusive clubs attract men that don't mind being around other guys at all! Take charge of your own souls before its too late.

    October 3, 2010 at 7:20 am |
    • CatholicMom

      Are you suggesting that Catholics should leave the Church Jesus Christ founded? And go where? Into one of the 35,000 ecclesial communities that have their roots in the split made by Martin Luther? Or start another ecclesial community? Or stay home and be your own pope?

      October 3, 2010 at 7:03 pm |
  12. Itsamazing1965

    It is amazing that many of the same people who believe that members of the Supreme Court can be brainwashed by listening to one 15 to 20 minute homily a year also hold that Obama's 20 years with the Rev. Wright has no influence on his thoughts.....

    October 3, 2010 at 7:07 am |
  13. Di


    October 3, 2010 at 6:51 am |
    • Bozole Clun

      Yeah... right. Like when Father O'Donnahugh put his hand on little Johnny's knee, it was to ... help him kneel at the altar? Yeah... right.

      October 3, 2010 at 7:46 am |
    • Wisdom or Obedience?

      They are not "praying for wisdom" they are preaching for the Catholic Church's rules, to be adopted into the American Legal system. They want America to be more like Iran. A Religion Governed Nation.

      Which is of course, what America had to fight against, to become America.

      October 3, 2010 at 8:23 am |
  14. vjf

    Before I make any serious decisions, I spend time reflecting upon my course of action. For heaven's sake (nice pun, huh?), what is the big deal? If the Mass provides such a time of reflection, then it serves its purpose. You would think that lawyers and justices are able to handle hearing opposing points of view, as they are immersed in arguing their cases. I cannot feel sympathy for people who "don't want to be lectured to by Catholic officials". If you don't want to attend, find something else to do.

    October 3, 2010 at 6:39 am |
  15. eleanor fitzgerald

    There are many moderate and liberal Catholics in this country. Catholic belief supports individual conscience. The Red church does not speak for all Catholics. I would favor members of the Supreme Court and members of the House and Senate of the U.S. not attending such services.

    October 3, 2010 at 6:34 am |
    • CatholicMom

      eleanor fitzgerald,

      Yes, we have our conscience, but apparently some Catholics do not let their consciences sway them towards the Truth…because they call themselves ‘Catholic’ and then say they approve of killing their baby in the womb….so NOT Catholic.

      October 3, 2010 at 3:39 pm |
  16. girl

    Liberals~ you sound like the loudmouthed obnoxious girlfriend drunk at prom and looking for a fight with the pretty girls. Go look for your boyfriend because you're going to need him to hold your hair while you vomit. Stupid stupid stupid. But you are entertaining to watch.

    October 3, 2010 at 6:14 am |
    • don corpier

      girl-you are stupid as you sound. please continue to support a church and its corrupt pope to commit crimes against humanity and label any criticism as liberal bias. you really are dumb.

      October 3, 2010 at 8:02 pm |
  17. just a thought

    6 of the justices are catholic. Do you think they don't go to mass each week? Uh oh, they might be "unduly influenced" by Catholicism!!!

    October 3, 2010 at 6:02 am |
  18. Peter E

    The Catholic Church is often singled out as somehown the Church that has the child molestation scandals. This, despite the fact that larger amounts of such crimes are commited by protestant clergymen each year in the US. However those don't make national news. Why? Lawyers! The Catholic Church has money so it can be sued. Protestant ministers don't have such financial backing by a large international religion, and hence it's hardly worth suing them for money. You just put them in jail and case is closed. So while if a Catholic priest commits a crime, it is treated as somehow the entire Church's fault, protestant churches get away by claiming the fault to be solely of the individual, and claims that they are isolated cases... while hypocritically calling out Catholics when they also claim that these are isolated cases.
    I do think the Catholic Church has major problems that need to be fixed as soon as possible. But so do protestants. Protestants are turning a blind eye to their own crimes.

    October 3, 2010 at 5:55 am |
    • eldono

      Where is your evidence? I'm not saying I doubt you assertion about Protestant clergy. I would just love to see the evidence.

      October 3, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Finally, in the authoritative work by Penn State professsor Philip Jenkins, ‘Ped-o=philes and Priests’, it was determined that between .2 and 1.7 percent of priests are ped-o=philes. The figure among the Protestant clergy ranges between 2 and 3 percent.

      Google: S xual Abuse in Social Context: Catholic Clergy and Other…

      October 3, 2010 at 6:55 pm |
    • kyle

      Pedophilia is always wrong, no matter who does it. Every belief-set knows it. But it's interesting how it's always pointed at the church, regardless of the denomination.
      It would be interesting to see what the percentage would be in each belief-set represented here (agnostic, hindu, atheist, muslim, buddhist...). I bet there would be much more in some of these groups than those recorded for the church. The actions of a few people in a group should not change the content of its core message, and people looking from the outside should not paint with such a broad brush.

      October 4, 2010 at 12:50 am |
  19. Limbaugh is a liberal

    Oh the right is a complete flip-flop about Catholics. On one hand they are the beacon of social conservatism, and most of the issues conservatives hold dear. Most of the judges on the Supreme Court, including all of the conservatives are Catholics. On the other hand, Catholics are shunned by their protestant base, to the point where there are states where Catholicism isn't recognized as a legitimate religion, but only as a cult. (this, despite the fact that even in America Catholicism is the single largest religion, with one in four Americans following the Church) One day the republicans will use bishops to demonize democrats on abortion. The next day they'll demonize Catholics as communists for advocating compassion and charity, values conservatives loathe.

    October 3, 2010 at 5:46 am |
    • Sydney Australia

      "....there are states where Catholicism isn't recognized as a legitimate religion, but only as a cult. "
      What the hell are you talking about? Are you trying to say that there is more than 1 of the 50 states in the US that only recognize Catholicism as a cult?

      What dark, wet orifice did you did that piece of crap out of?

      October 3, 2010 at 10:16 am |
  20. the truth

    There is Matthew and its growing up.

    October 3, 2010 at 4:54 am |
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About this blog

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.