Antonin Scalia: America’s Good Servant ‘Because He Was God’s First’

COMMENTARY: Justice’s funeral Mass was both edifying and evangelizing — and unambiguously Catholic.

With family members following behind, pallbearers carry the casket of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia through the Holy Door for the Year of Mercy of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Feb. 20 in Washington.
With family members following behind, pallbearers carry the casket of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia through the Holy Door for the Year of Mercy of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Feb. 20 in Washington. (photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The funeral Mass of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in Washington was a great catechetical opportunity, and the graced moment was fully employed to that effect.

After years of prominent Catholic funerals that have been missed opportunities to preach the Gospel — those of Ted Kennedy and Stan Musial, to take but two recent examples — the Scalia funeral was both edifying and evangelizing.

Justice Scalia himself would have been pleased. His son, Father Paul Scalia, quoted from a letter his father had written after the funeral of retired Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in 1998. The son quoted the father on his distaste for eulogies, but another part of that letter spoke of funerals as evangelical opportunities.

“Perhaps the clergymen who conduct relatively secular services are moved by a desire not to offend the nonbelievers in attendance — whose numbers tend to increase in proportion to the prominence of the deceased,” Scalia wrote. “What a great mistake. Weddings and funerals (but especially funerals) are the principal occasions left in modern America when you can preach the Good News not just to the faithful, but to those who have never really heard it.”

The Scalia funeral was certainly not a “relatively secular service.” It was Catholic from start to finish, beginning with the carrying of the late justice’s coffin through the holy door of mercy before Mass to the singing of the Salve Regina by the priests on the steps of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception after the Mass as the coffin passed by. The latter I had only ever witnessed at the funerals of priests.

It may have been a mark of respect and fraternity for Father Scalia. It is a difficult thing to offer the funeral Mass for one’s own father, and more difficult still to preach, to say nothing of doing so in an immense basilica and before a congregation that includes the entire Supreme Court and the vice president. Father Scalia did splendidly, and more than a few present commented that his late father would have been very proud indeed.

Father Scalia spoke, of course, about his father, but more as a disciple than a judge. And he explained why, according to his father’s lights, a funeral should not be about praising the dead, but praying for them.

“I have always thought there is much to be said for such a prohibition [on eulogies],” the son quoted the father as writing. “Not only because it spares from embarrassment or dissembling those of us about whom little good can truthfully be said, but also because, even when the deceased was an admirable person — indeed, especially when the deceased was an admirable person — praise for his virtues can cause us to forget that we are praying for, and giving thanks for, God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner.”

The “inexplicable mercy” of God is what Catholic funerals celebrate and what Catholics at funerals beseech for the deceased. That was done aplenty at the Scalia funeral, but there was another dimension at play too, one that I picked up in conversation with many present. While Antonin Scalia was not strictly a Catholic judge — he would dispute that such a thing existed — he was a Catholic in public life that many Catholics could be proud of, specifically as Catholics.

As a Catholic citizen, Scalia no doubt had policy preferences — and those were broadly socially conservative. But as a judge, he restricted himself to an originalist interpretation of the Constitution. His view was that the Constitution neither required nor forbid abortion, neither required nor forbid same-sex “marriage.” Because that put him at odds with his colleagues who ruled that the Constitution required both, his judicial opinions often dissented. But they dissented on grounds of who got to decide — judges, instead of legislatures — rather than the substance of the decision.

Those dissents endeared him to many pro-life and pro-family Catholics, but their affection for him went further than that. Scalia belonged to a generation in which the leading Catholics in public life were ambiguous models. Scalia was an exception — a man who practiced his faith dutifully, spoke about it openly and offered a witness that what his son called the “adventure of family life” — 55 years of marriage and nine children — was still happily possible.

From my vantage point in the sanctuary, I spent the entire funeral Mass with Justice Anthony Kennedy in my direct line of sight. The most powerful man in the United States — who, as the court’s swing vote, alone gets to decide numerous issues of national importance — appeared, like all of Scalia’s colleagues, to be genuinely grieving the loss of a man known for his extraordinary capacity for friendship.

A few places over from Kennedy was Vice President Joe Biden. There, it occurred to me, was the spectrum of Catholic leadership that Scalia’s generation offered.

There was Scalia himself, 79 at his death, who strived to live a life of coherence in being, as Father Scalia, echoing St. Thomas More, put it, “the country’s good servant because he was God’s first.”

There was Kennedy, also 79, who, better than any public figure in the world, embodies the dictatorship of relativism of which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke. Kennedy, too, is Catholic, but has written into the jurisprudence of the land — in Casey and Obergefell above all, entrenching both abortion and same-sex “marriage” as constitutional rights — a radical relativism as sweeping as one can find in any school of philosophy. That relativism, providing no objective standard for decision-making, leads the judge to characterize as bigots those who do not agree with him. That’s dictatorship, ruling out of bounds those who refuse to go along with the prevailing trend.

There was Biden, 73, so proud of his Catholic faith. Yet, along with fellow Catholic Ted Kennedy, he led the charge against the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Had Bork been confirmed, there would be no Justice Kennedy, and the essential holding of Roe — that abortion was a constitutional right — would have been overturned. Years later as vice president, Biden would be the leading advocate for same-sex “marriage” in the Obama administration.

Scalia, Kennedy, Biden — all Catholics. The counter witness of Scalia to the major figures of his generation has been critical for the formation of a new generation of Catholic leaders — both in politics and the law — who aspire to a more integral Catholic witness in public life. The shrine was packed in part by that new generation.

Gazing upon the visage of Justice Kennedy is not conducive to sacramental piety, so I shifted my eyes upward to the Resurrection and Ascension domes inside the shrine. A fellow concelebrant allowed that he had done the same, commenting that the image of the risen Christ triumphs over the sleeping Roman guards, agents of the greatest power of the time. It was a better focal point for the priests. And it was the focal point of the entire funeral, the risen Christ to whom our gaze belongs when confronted by the mystery of death.

Father Raymond J. De Souza

is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

He has been appointed to serve as a

jubilee year missionary of mercy by the

Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.