Friday, October 02, 2009

In the Capitol, "Red" Meets Blue

As American church-state interactions go, this weekend brings the genre's Super Bowl -- and given the new state of things in the nation's capital, smart money says this years'll be even more closely watched than usual.

Of course, the "Bowl" in question is Washington's Red Mass, held annually on the First Sunday of October, the eve of a new Supreme Court term. Begun in 1954 and planned by DC's John Carroll Society for Catholic lawyers, the liturgy in St Matthew's Cathedral -- its roots dating from the 14th century -- traditionally attracts a quorum of the Court's nine justices (six of them now Catholic) and, in the last administration, an occasional appearance by the President. ("43" is shown above at the 2005 rite, alongside the now-retired Cardinal Ted McCarrick and Chief Justice John Roberts, then at the outset of his first term.)

While the capital's archbishop invariably serves as celebrant, the Mass' preaching duties are customarily given to a high-profile visitor. And so, following in the footsteps of Sean O'Malley, Tim Dolan and John Foley, this year's pulpit honors fall to the Cardinal of the South, Galveston-Houston's Dan DiNardo, who'll assume leadership of the US bishops' pro-life efforts at next month's November Meeting in Baltimore.

Speaking of things pro-life (or not), the Court's standing precedent on abortion and its clash with Catholic teaching has led church-state separation advocates on the political left to criticize the Mass as a means of "lecturing" the justices, and the leader of the court's pro-choice bloc, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, no longer attends the liturgy after one Red Mass homily which she described as "outrageously anti-abortion."

All that said, the wild card remains whether this year's edition will see the presence of the Court's newest (and unprecedented sixth Catholic) member, Justice Sonia Sotomayor. A product of the archdiocesan schools of her native Bronx, the junior associate is the first Latino ever to take a seat on the nation's highest bench.

Regardless of who does or doesn't show, however, it's worth noting that, just like the Court itself, cameras of every sort are kept well outside the cathedral walls for the liturgy's duration.