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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Possible Catholic Court Turns Heads

WASHINGTON -- If Samuel Alito is confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, a majority of its nine justices for the first time will be Roman Catholics -- a fact that, depending on whom you ask, marks the acceptance of a once-persecuted minority, reflects the importance of conservative Catholics to the Republican Party or means practically nothing.

Four Catholics currently serve on the court: Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and the new chief justice, John Roberts. From the moment President George W. Bush announced Alito's nomination, there has been an undercurrent of debate about the prospect of a Catholic majority.

To many scholars, however, what's most impressive about the rising number of Catholics on the court is that it's a nonissue, at least compared with the blatant anti-Catholicism that dogged Al Smith when he ran for president in 1928 and that faced John F. Kennedy in 1960.

"At the very least, it's a victory over historic prejudice, and it shows that Catholics have come fully into their own in the United States," said M. Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of theology and law at the University of Notre Dame.

Dennis Hutchinson, a court historian at the University of Chicago, noted that one of the most liberal Supreme Court justices of the 20th century, William Brennan, was a Catholic, and so is one of the most conservative, Scalia.

In the view of Howard Gillman, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California, the possibility that five Catholics may soon sit on the court is less striking than the fact that all five are Republicans. "It certainly is a dramatic reflection of the changing demographics of our parties," he said, alluding to the fact that Catholics have traditionally been Democrats.

Why have recent Republican presidents turned again and again to Catholic jurists when making appointments to the Supreme Court? It may be partly an effort to woo Catholic voters, but mostly it's because so many of the brightest stars in the conservative legal firmament are Catholics, several scholars said.

Bernard Dobranski, dean of Ave Maria School of Law, a Catholic institution in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said the number of highly qualified conservative Catholic lawyers is also a tribute to the strength of Catholic schools, the determination of immigrants to educate their children and a rich tradition of legal scholarship in the Catholic Church.

A hallmark of that tradition is the belief in "natural law," a basic set of moral principles that the church says is written in the hearts of all people and true for all societies. Though long out of favor in secular law schools, the natural law approach is resurgent among conservatives, Dobranski said.

"I do think that there is an important truth in saying that Catholics are the intellectual pillars of social conservatism," said Notre Dame law professor Gerald Bradley. "Compared to their political allies in that movement, Catholics are heirs to a richer intellectual tradition and ... are more inclined to believe that reason supplies good grounds for the moral and political positions characteristic of social conservatism. Call it the 'natural law' thing."