Scalia and Francis Down Mexico Way

by Ken Briggs

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Antonin Scalia and Pope Francis both headed toward Mexico during the last fateful weekend. Scalia stopped in southern Texas, about an hour's ride from the border while the pope went to Mexico City. Both were 79 as they arrived. As we're aware, Scalia didn't survive the weekend while Francis began a rigorous six-day pastoral tour.

Each brought a commitment to the Catholic faith that was uncomfortable with the other's. Scalia, described as "devout" in popular media, was a Catholic in the mode of vigilant keeping of the sacraments and moral doctrines that is often marked these days as dwindling traditionalism, for whom Vatican II was something less than a fresh breeze envisioned by John XXIII. Francis, by comparison, has taken the Council's wider signals and run with them.

So it was that Scalia's destination was a posh Texas resort designed for celebrities like Bruce Willis and a band of movers and shakers from political and financial powerhouses. Rooms rent for $500 a night on the 30,000 acre consumer oasis. Scalia was there to indulge in one of the resort's specialties, quail hunting, among three dozen admirers. It was called a retreat. Nothing explicitly ties Scalia to the Cibolo Creek Ranch's elitist values. On the other hand he fancied the place. He'd reportedly been there to shoot birds before with no apparent unease at the lifestyle or the company.

Meanwhile, Francis was launching a visit that would confront poverty, injustice and violence that undermined the social fabric he believed essentially to the church's vision of mutual dignity and compassion. He would go on to denounce the pursuit of wealth, selfishness, privilege and power for its own sake. Many Mexicans were deliberately demeaned by corruption, arrogance and, particularly in the drug trade, threats of death and destruction. 

The question is what one man's Catholicism had to do with the other's. It's a question raised by the two figures but symbolic of a greater and urgent challenge. How does a largely personal piety that has its own sphere of interest jibe with a faith that insists that Gospel imperatives demand transformation of the status quo?

Without doubting Scalia's Catholic bona fides for a second, it doesn't appear that it embraces Catholic Social Teaching. His judgments from the Supreme Court Bench echo an older moral manual version of church morality that hasn't welcomed the ministry of justice and peace inherent in those teaching.

Scalia's faith-based outlook stopped short of being converted by the nagging discomforts of CST. That doesn't mean his life wasn't sanctified in some special way; but that his translation of faith sources into his law didn't show much capacity for CST's motivations. Lots of harshness and closed-mindedness come through, along with caustic attacks and callousness. He might have learned much about the other side of the Bible from the pope.

At the same time, perhaps the pope could have acquired a lesson from Scalia. The judge was a man whose words ignited action, either triggering moral and politic resistance by dissenting or flipping the switch on behavior or procedure that he agreed with. He was a personal force as well as a legal one, and his opinions had implications that continued to press for change. Pope Francis has yet to turn his eloquence and admonitions into actions that set reform in motion. His words carry emotion and register sincerely but they haven't carried implications so far. His criticisms of wealth and exploitation ring true, and much of the audience nods in approval, but they've heard it before and there is no threat to them. The words won't hurt them. Nor will they by themselves urge supporters to give of themselves in a campaign to eradicate evils. Francis may believe it is sufficient to be the preacher who approves changes when they've become de facto acceptable. Women's feet can now officially be washed. Will he continue to require virtual consensus before approving changes? 

Scalia had a rambunctious, joyous ability to pack a punch on the field of action. Francis has a surpassing spiritual presence. Somewhere between them their Catholic styles beg sharing.  

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