Sotomayor? Probably a "majority" Catholic

sonia_sotomayor_4_smiling_with_her_motherOver the past week, GetReligion has been pursuing this question: What is the mainstream press saying about where Judge Sonia Sotomayor falls in the spectrum of Catholic life and practice? Well, New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein has been researching this for all of the curious minds who read that newspaper (not to mention GR readers), and here's what she has found out:

Four of the Catholics on the court are reported to be committed attenders of Mass, and they make up the court's solid conservative bloc -- Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. The fifth Catholic, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, often votes with them.

There are indications that Judge Sotomayor is more like the majority of American Catholics: those who were raised in the faith and shaped by its values, but who do not attend Mass regularly and are not particularly active in religious life. Like many Americans, Judge Sotomayor may be what religion scholars call a "cultural Catholic" -- a category that could say something about her political and social attitudes.

First of all, we're pleased as punch that Goodstein has tackled this question. It's long been clear that conservative Catholics vote along conservative lines -- so the fact that the mass--attending Justices generally trend reliably conservative should not shock anyone. As Terry said in a previous post, the hinge issue is abortion. Is there any way of predicting by her church attendance (and Goodstein has done her homework here) how Sotomayor would vote on abortion-related, or "right to privacy" cases that come before the court?

Franklly, it's unwise to predict how anyone would vote, even if you think you know. Purely my opinion, but confirmation processes have now become a charade, where aspiring Justices say as little as possible without totally compromising their integrity. Yet it seems clear that piety (if one can judge piety by church attendance, which is a whole other debate) is a factor, if not a totally understood factor, in where one falls on the spectrum of liberal-conservative opinion (as in this poll on the Notre-Dame controversy). Here's some interesting stats on a few social issues culled by Goodstein.

In fact, 52 percent of Catholics who do not attend church regularly say abortion is morally acceptable, compared with 24 percent of churchgoing Catholics, according to a Gallup study released in March based on polling over the previous three years. Gallup found that 61 percent of non-churchgoing Catholics found same-sex relationships morally acceptable, compared with 44 percent of churchgoers.

But legal scholars say that while Judge Sotomayor's Catholic identity will undoubtedly shape her perceptions, they will not determine how she would rule on the bench. After all, they point out, Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Frank Murphy, both Catholics, had records as liberals, while Justice Scalia has been a reliable conservative. Their positions have differed, even on issues covered in Catholic teaching, like abortion.

That's a fascinating stat on same-sex relationships -- anyone want to guess what it means? Actually, let's start with the term "morally acceptable."

Then there is the whole issue of whether Judge Sotomayor's 'Catholic identity' was shaped by her Hispanic roots. She has talked about being proud of her Latina heritage -- did she spend any time with the more than one-half (in this 2007 Pew poll) of Hispanic Catholics who identify themselves as charismatic? There's no evidence here that she did. And there's really no way of predicting yet how Sotomayor will vote -- with the exception of the Ricci affirmative action case recently argued before the Supreme Court, she doesn't have a huge paper trail on hot button issues. Generally picks for the Supreme Court don't.

As much as I liked the Goodstein article, I had a few problems with it. Characterizing Anthony Kennedy (as Professor Powe does) as a "country club Republican" says nothing about his Catholic identity. Nor does telling us that Justices Breyer and Ginsburg are Jewish or that Stevens is a Protestant illuminate anything about how their faith and/or culture shapes their decisions. Aren't you curious about them, too?

But here's what I want to know -- is it possible that "cultural Catholics" aren't much different than the majority of Americans as a whole? If Sotomayor doesn't go to church very often, then she's like most of the rest of us. Does terming someone a "cultural Catholic" in an age of ethnic diversity and diversity of practice really mean a whole heck of a lot anymore? The vague definition here (a commitment to social justice and community service) could as well be applied to Quakers.

In the end, of course, it comes down to what one woman with a Catholic heritage believes -- and as excellent a reporter as Goodstein is, she hasn't been able to get inside Sotomayor's head. Which won't keep a lot of other people from trying.

Isn't this a nice picture of Sotomayor with her mother (Wikimedia Commons)?

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