Justice Samuel Alito, one of six Catholics on the Supreme Court and author of the decision overturning Roe v. Wade, laments that too many Americans have lost our way: We are not religious enough, he told an audience of other conservative Catholics in Rome, and therefore our “increasingly secular society” and “new moral code” pose a threat to religious freedom, its constitutional protection notwithstanding.
Nowhere in this speech did Alito mention the specifically steep decline in the number of churchgoing Catholics, and one of the major reasons for that decline: The sexual abuse of minors by clergy over multiple generations and the cover-up of those horrors by the hierarchy.
We were reminded of the depressing scandal again on Tuesday when survivors stood outside the office of the Maryland Attorney General to demand results from a lengthy investigation of abuse within the Archdiocese of Baltimore. With Attorney General Brian Frosh leaving office in January and the lead investigator, Elizabeth Embry, the recent primary winner of a seat in the House of Delegates, survivors are concerned they might never see a final report. But they should have faith in Frosh, a man of integrity, and in Embry, an experienced prosecutor. Frosh’s spokeswoman says significant resources have been devoted to the investigation, and a report is expected “in the next few months.”
As for my point about Alito’s omission: I have good reason to believe, aside from the merely anecdotal, that the decline in faith among my fellow Catholics stems from the abuse scandal. Gallup’s surveys of church membership between 1998 and 2020 show an 18% drop in expressed Catholic affiliation, twice the decline among those who identify as Protestants. That time period tracks with all the soul-crushing revelations about the abuse of minors by Catholic clergy and the billions of dollars paid by the church to settle lawsuits. Many Catholics who were on the margins fell off.
Hard as it is to look past the abuse scandal, there are other reasons for the loss of interest and faith among Catholics — the church’s positions on sexuality, its refusal to allow women to be priests, its insistence on the celibate priesthood and its divisive obsession with abortion.
According to the Pew Research Center, if you’re Catholic and not attending mass regularly, you think abortion should be legal in most or all cases. If you’re still attending mass on a regular basis, you think, similarly to evangelical Protestants, that abortion should be illegal.
Alito and the other conservative Catholic justices who voted with him to overturn Roe fall into this category, a fact that contributes to our most serious secular loss of faith — in the credibility of the Supreme Court.
It’s not only that the court rejected precedent. It’s that Catholic justices voted to do it. They hold, after all, a majority on the court. Six of the nine justices — Alito, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, Sonia Sotomayor — are Catholic. That gives the court 67% Catholic representation in a country where, according to Gallup, only 22% of the population identifies as Catholic.
For Americans who believe abortion should remain legal and accessible, and who cherish the separation of church and state, the overturning of Roe appears to have been more religious than judicial. That has contributed mightily, in just the last six weeks, to the unprecedented decline in the court’s credibility.
Alito, in his Rome speech to the Religious Liberty Initiative of the University of Notre Dame Law School, seemed to care not a whit about that. In fact, he seemed to relish that his decision to overturn Roe had been widely criticized, and he smugly mocked his critics.
Mainly, Alito appeared to be proselytizing, essentially calling on Americans of faith to get others to church. His was the kind of rhetoric I’d expect from a politician playing to Sunday worshippers, not from a justice of the Supreme Court.
“Polls show a significant increase in the percentage of the population that rejects religion or thinks it’s just not all that important,” Alito said. “And this has a very important impact on religious liberty, because it is hard to convince people that religious liberty is worth defending if they don’t think that religion is a good thing that deserves protection.”
Religious freedom, Alito said, poses a threat to “those who want to hold complete power.”
I’m not sure what he meant by that. Is the justice concerned that, in this fragile democracy of ours, some demagogue might become president and act in an autocratic manner, cracking down on religious expression? The only threat of such a thing today looms on the right, where Alito resides, and the faiths most threatened by an American autocracy would certainly not be those of the Christian majority.
“There’s growing hostility to religion,” Alito added, “or at least the traditional religious beliefs that are contrary to the new moral code that is ascendant in some sectors.”
This is such a red herring. What American opposes freedom of religion? We want neither the government to impede religion nor religious beliefs imposed on us, and yet the latter had to have been a factor in Alito’s opinion overturning Roe.
Fortunately, a majority of Americans see that. In Kansas, that reliably red state, three Catholic dioceses and the Kansas Catholic Conference donated nearly $3.5 million combined in support of an anti-abortion initiative that was on Tuesday’s ballot. Kansans overwhelmingly rejected it, and so the backlash has begun.