In the May issue of First Things, Antonin Scalia published some of his views on the intersection of his Catholicism and his job as a Justice of the Supreme Court. Scalia made the case that the Vatican's general opposition to the death penalty is not a "binding" teaching requiring adherence by all Catholics. This is important to Scalia because as a Supreme Court Justice, he is often called upon to make the final decision to impose capital punishment.

In July, Sean Wilentz, a distinguished professor of history at Princeton University, responded with an op-ed in The New York Times, decrying Scalia's "Chilling Vision of Religion's Authority in America." According to Wilentz, Scalia "seeks to abandon the intent of the Constitution's framers and impose views about government and divinity that no previous justice, no matter how conservative, has ever embraced." This is a startling assertion, and deserves some careful attention.

What exactly is this "view about government and divinity" that Wilentz finds so chilling? It is simply this: that in Scalia's view Catholic judges ought to resign rather than uphold laws that directly contradict church doctrine. (Hence, Scalia's attempts to reconcile his own judicial support for the death penalty in the face of general Catholic disapproval of capital punishment.) Wilentz can portray this seemingly logical and simple proposition as dangerously radical because he is a passionate advocate for a public square from which considerations of faith have been banished. Above all, Wilentz cannot stomach the notion that American judges (and citizens for that matter) ought to be mindful of what Scalia calls the "divine authority behind government."

Such views of religion—that it belongs "at home" or "in ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.