We’ve Lost One of America’s Great Catholic Thinkers and Fighters

COMMENTARY: The judge stood tall against secular progressivism, corporate America and fellow Catholics who elect people who take down family and marriage.

President Ronald Reagan and Judge Antonin Scalia confer in the Oval Office in July 1986. Two months later, Scalia would take his seat on the U.S. Supreme Court
President Ronald Reagan and Judge Antonin Scalia confer in the Oval Office in July 1986. Two months later, Scalia would take his seat on the U.S. Supreme Court (photo: Public domain)

I walked out of the gym late Saturday afternoon. I was headed to grab food for a small party at our house. I felt my phone buzz and saw a text message from my student assistant, someone currently evaluating offers from law school, incidentally. She doesn’t text me often. It was short and simple, a punch to the gut: “Justice Scalia was just found dead.”

I was floored. This was not supposed to happen. Sure, we figured Barack Obama would get three or four picks to the Supreme Court over two terms, and we knew those picks would do everything from redefine the laws of nature and nature’s God on marriage to enshrine Roe v. Wade as the law of the land for another generation. A majority of self-described Catholics twice voted Obama into the presidency, and such were the consequences.

And so, we’ve been tremendously surprised and pleased that Obama got only two such picks, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. We feared he would get to replace ultra-liberal Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Ginsberg, however, is hanging on until the next president. We made it … we thought.

None of us could imagine that our single best warrior against these forces, 79-year-old Antonin Scalia, would die at the start of Obama’s final year. The news was devastating.

“Oh, my,” I replied to my student, after composing myself. “God help us.”

I meant that literally. In fact, for me, it was one of those “Why God?” moments, to which I usually don’t succumb.

Understand that Antonin Scalia was not merely a great and brilliant justice. He was a solid Roman Catholic, whose faith properly and ideally infused his judicial principles. He had a complete and healthy understanding of the role of faith in public life and in America. He was not just an orthodox Catholic. He was the leader of constitutional orthodoxy on the Supreme Court and its voice, which he expressed with eloquence, uniqueness, cheer, wit, flair and panache — con molto brio, as they say in his ethnic Italian. He was winsome and likable, a colorful character.

But more than that, Scalia was nothing short of our hope on the Supreme Court on matters of religious freedom, unborn life and marriage. There are so many pivotal cases involving these things coming up this year, from a major Texas case on abortion to the Little Sisters of the Poor, as the Obama Department of Health and Human Services forces the celibate nuns to fund abortion drugs and contraception in violation of their consciences.

Even when Scalia lost crucial cases, from the landmark Obamacare decision to the Obergefell tragedy redefining marriage in the United States, his scathing but stirring dissents were victories for faith and reason — and for the ages. He fought fearlessly against the dictatorship of relativism.

Speaking of which, secular progressivism’s godfather for the dictatorship of relativism on the court is Anthony Kennedy — the anti-Scalia. Both were 79 years old. The two longest-serving members, both were Reagan appointees, but Scalia may be the true Reagan appointee. Kennedy has been a human wrecking ball to the endurance of Judeo-Christian values and the notion of ordered liberty in America. Scalia was Kennedy’s corrective, and one could sense again and again Scalia’s misery as he read painful opinion after opinion from his fellow Reagan-appointed Catholic justice.

A grand case in point was Kennedy’s awful opinion in the historic 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld Roe v. Wade. There, Kennedy led the majority with this breathtaking proclamation: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.”

No, that is absolutely not the American founders’ understanding of liberty, nor the understanding of Kennedy’s church. Such thinking telegraphed how Kennedy would vote on marriage last June. Think about it: If Anthony Kennedy interprets liberty to mean that every American possesses his or her own right to define existence, meaning, the universe and life itself, then why not marriage? Really, redefining marriage was small potatoes after that. Kennedy, thus, magically imposed same-sex “marriage” upon all 50 states.

Scalia’s quite amazing dissent in that case revealed his astonishment and agony at his colleague’s rudderless thinking.

But still, even after Obergefell, at least we still had Scalia. He remained the stoic leader among a small block of sanity that included Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito and, to a lesser extent, Chief Justice John Roberts.

Not anymore. His loss at such a critical juncture compelled me to reach a “Why God?” moment. I asked that out loud.

After my student’s text message, I drove to the shop to pick up the food for our party. As the clerk fetched my order, my phone rang. It was a reporter, an old friend and devout Catholic. I knew why he was calling. I answered not with a “hello,” but with, “I just heard the news. I will call you back in literally two minutes.”

As I despaired over this latest giant blow to American culture and religious liberty, I unavoidably noticed the comportment of the young man waiting on me. He was affecting the “transgender look” — ear piercings and hair bow. He was a really nice kid, and I treated him as one made in God’s image. But his effeminate behavior really struck me at that moment: Nothing that Antonin Scalia could have done will halt this particular cultural juggernaut, even though the judge stood up against secular progressivism, the universities, public schools, sitcoms, Hollywood, media, the Internet, Google, Facebook, Twitter, advertisers, corporate America and fellow Catholics who elect people who take down family and marriage.

I got in the car and called my reporter friend. He knew Scalia. He interviewed him at least twice. He told me something quite revealing. A source close to Scalia compared the embattled jurist to the character “Frodo” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He was like the keeper of the ring, almost single-handedly retarding the forces of relativism fundamentally transforming a once-great country — a people who once knew the difference between good and evil. It was, said my friend, wearing him down.

Apparently, it finally wore down Antonin Scalia completely. Now, the battle is ours. And, sadly, we have lost one of our single best fighters.

Paul Kengor is a professor of political science at Grove City College.

His latest book is Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage.