Once more into the "religion test" gap

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times has a helpful commentary up today, returning to the issue of whether Judge John G. Roberts Jr. has to shed his Catholic beliefs in order to enter the sacred doors of the U.S. Supreme Court. Two passages stand out for me, the first a chunk of content-analysis that gives a hint of just how nervous many newspaper people are about this whole "religion test" issue:

Friday, in reporting the contents of the most recently released cache of documents from the young Roberts' service as a legal advisor to President Reagan, the Washington Post chose to emphasize his opposition to legally expanding women's rights. At one point, the Post noted in its opening paragraph, Roberts wrote a memo wondering "whether encouraging homemakers to become lawyers contributes to the common good." The phrase, "common good," is a bedrock fixture of Catholic social thinking. So, is the sentiment an expression of his religious faith?

By contrast, the Los Angeles Times' reporters looked at the same memoranda and felt they portrayed Roberts as a remarkably steadfast opponent of commercializing or in any way cheapening the presidency, even when the pressure to do so came from Reagan's friends. At one point, Roberts urged deletion from a campaign speech of a line that called the United States "the greatest nation God ever created." The young lawyer dryly noted, "According to Genesis, God creates things like the heavens and the earth, and the birds and the fishes, but not nations." In our piety-besotted times, that common sense seems a breath of fresh air. Was it a consequence of his Catholic faith?

The missing link here, of course, is that there is intellectual content to the Christian faith and it has, like it or not, had a major impact on Western (and Eastern) culture. So Civil Rights leaders (and junior senators from Illinois) can quote the Bible left and right but judges cannot?

But all of this is, really, beside the point. What reporters want to know is whether this Catholic layman is a good Catholic or a bad Catholic. They want to know if he is a Scalia Catholic or a Kennedy Catholic. They want to know if he is SAFE.

Dr. James Dobson and his camp, of course, want to know precisely the same thing. Only one side's good is the other's bad.

So what about the Vatican? Rutten wades into this, briefly. It is clear that Catholics are allowed to be strategic in their thinking. They are allowed to choose the lesser of evils.

But it is also clear what the church believes is evil. This whole battle, you see, is over whether it is even possible -- under Roe -- to compromise on abortion at all. Will a strict abortion-on-demand regime hold?

The issue is whether Roberts is the man who casts a vote that allows compromise to begin. Here is Rutten again:

UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge, who writes about Catholic social thought with great precision, recently noted that the Vatican document most relevant to the questions that have arisen concerning Roberts is its "Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life." When it comes to both the political and judicial spheres, Bainbridge wrote in his blog (www.professorbainbridge.com), "the Church distinguishes between formal and material cooperation with evil."

Formal cooperation, as the doctrinal note defines it, occurs when a person "gives consent to the evil action of another (the actor). Here the cooperator shares the same intention as the actor." Material cooperation occurs when "a cooperator performs an action that itself is not evil, but in so doing helps the actor perform another evil action. The moral quality of material cooperation depends upon how close the act of the cooperator is to the evil action, and whether there is a proportionate reason for performing the action."

A little more than a year ago, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, elaborated on the note by writing, "When a Catholic does not share a candidate's stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons."

As Bainbridge -- whose personal politics are conservative, generally Republican -- wrote, "Judicial decision making, even with respect to issues like abortion and euthanasia that raise moral questions under Church teaching, does not per se constitute formal cooperation with evil."

So here is the question: Is the Vatican more flexible on the issue of abortion, more interested in compromise, than American newspapers?

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