It was quite a Catholic week in the world of U.S. politics: As you may have heard, Pope Francis decried the wall-building enthusiasm that’s Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s strongest selling point. In response, Trump called the Holy Father “disgraceful” for questioning his credibility as a Christian. Then, perhaps after recalling that there are multi catholici in states like New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where primary voters have yet to weigh in, the billionaire backtracked, and posited that Peter’s successor has “a lot of personality.”
The most seismic crossover news of not just last week but many weeks to come, though, was the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. And at his funeral Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception this weekend, his son, the Rev. Paul Scalia, delivered a bold, and even defiant homily that was kind of a closing argument, from Justice Scalia’s perspective, for the importance of faith in the public square — and against the prevailing view of the proper separation between church and state.
“God blessed Dad,’’ Father Paul said from the pulpit, “as is well known, with a love for his country. He knew well what a close-run thing the founding of our nation was, and he saw in that founding, as did the founders themselves, a blessing — a blessing quickly lost when faith is banned from the public square, or when we refuse to bring it there."
“So he understood there is no conflict between loving God and loving one’s country [or] between one’s faith and one’s public service. Dad understood that the deeper he went in his Catholic faith, the better a citizen and public servant he became.”
At one point, Father Paul even referred to his father’s martyred hero, St. Thomas More, peace negotiator and heretic hunter. Just before More was beheaded for refusing to recognize the supremacy of King Henry VIII, not only in matters of state but as head of the church, too, he declared that choosing God (and pope) over king in no way made him a traitor to England or to Henry. “I die the King’s good servant,’’ he said, “and God’s first.”
Of his father, Father Paul said, “God blessed him with a desire to be the country’s good servant because he was God’s first.”
He also made the case for the kind of all-in Catholicism that leads to big families like that of the Scalias, who had nine children: “He gave us one another,’’ Father Paul said, “and that’s the greatest wealth parents can bestow.”
The funeral service for Scalia argued for tradition even in that there were no eulogies, which were unheard of at Catholic funerals until recent decades. Father Paul said his father felt that funerals that so heap encomia on the dearly departed that they forget to pray for his soul show “false love.”
So no, his father was not perfect, the son told the crowd, which included Vice Presidents Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Dick Cheney, but not President Barack Obama: “He tried to love God and neighbor, but like the rest of us, did so imperfectly.”
After the service, some friends of the deceased disagreed about whether or not Obama had been right to stay away, with some arguing Justice Scalia would not have wanted him there and others feeling that Scalia so respected the office of the presidency, though not Obama personally, that he would very much have wanted him sitting right up front.
The correct answer seemed written on the faces of the surviving justices, who looked just heartbroken. In fact, the sight of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as bereft as any of us would be at the loss of a “best buddy” should remind us of the great gift that respect and love for those with whom we may disagree can be.
None of us can claim to care more about the issues of the day than RBG and Scalia have, yet their stark differences on law, politics and religion didn’t keep them from true friendship.
And as official Washington filed out of church and into a street fight over Scalia’s replacement, the pain in her face as she stood over his coffin should be a sobering counterpoint — both to all of the vitriol about Scalia that was spewed after the news of his death, and of the preemptive prebuttal that nobody Obama could possibly pick to succeed him would be worth even considering.
Melinda Henneberger is the editor-in-chief of Roll Call. Contact her at MelindaHenneberger@RollCall.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.
See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.