In Slate's tradition of contrarianism, William Saletan argues that someone has indeed played the Catholic card in re Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court: President Bush and his fellow Republicans.
Whatever it is, Catholics are clearly in vogue as reliable choices of this White House. Among the eight names circulated on Supreme Court shortlists this year, I count three known Catholics. One got the first open seat; another is getting the second. If you're pro-life, the fact that these nominees are Catholic doesn't mean they'll vote the way you want. But it does make it easier to label anyone who challenges their abortion writings a bigot -- and to cash in that label at election time.
Saletan contends that opposing a Catholic nominee because of that nominee's pro-life convictions is not anti-Catholicism unless opponents clearly make the link:
Two years ago, Republicans found a new way to play victim. They were trying to get Bill Pryor, the attorney general of Alabama, confirmed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Pryor had called Roe v. Wade an "abomination" that had led to "slaughter." Such rhetoric, according to Democrats, suggested that Pryor was incapable of subordinating his moral convictions to constitutional law. A well-connected conservative lobby, the Committee for Justice, fired back with ads depicting a warning on a courthouse door: "Catholics need not apply." The ads accused senators of attacking Pryor's "'deeply held' Catholic beliefs."
In truth, no opposing senator had mentioned Pryor's Catholicism. The inference was drawn purely from questions about his sharp moral rhetoric. Republican senators took the campaign further, suggesting that criticism of judges who supported abortion restrictions was inherently anti-Catholic.
Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review Online addressed some of these points around the time of Pryor's confirmation hearings:
I think a plausible case can be made that during the confirmation debate over John Ashcroft, Democrats really were playing on widespread prejudices about certain Protestant sects. (The Ashcroft fight, by the way, was a dress rehearsal for the current debate. The Democrats reacted exactly as they are reacting now to the charge of bigotry, and their anger then was a sign of political vulnerability, as it is now.) That case can't be made now with respect to Catholicism.
So Republican rhetoric about the Democrats' having adopted a "religious test for office" is not true. It is true, however, that the Democrats have adopted the next best thing. They have a viewpoint test for office that has the effect of screening out all Catholics faithful to their church's teachings on abortion. The fact that the test screens out a lot of Protestants, too, makes the problem worse, not better. It really is true that faithful Catholics "need not apply" as far as most Democrats are concerned. A Catholic can win their support only by ceasing, on the decisive issue, to be Catholic -- by breaking from his church's teaching, as Senator [Dick] Durbin has done. (It is rather disgraceful for a man who went in six years from supporting the Human Life Amendment to supporting partial-birth abortion to keep carrying on about the extremism of people whose beliefs have been less supple.)
Saletan makes a fair point that claiming anti-Catholicism bigotry against Supreme Court nominees is "becoming numerically preposterous." What's not becoming preposterous is the concern that certain Senators will indeed seek to scuttle a Catholic nominee who declines to make the right noises about the sacrosanct nature of Roe v. Wade. Someday, perhaps, we will have the luxury of seeing whether a pro-life agnostic or atheist nominee would encounter the same resistance. Would anyone else enjoy the thought of Nat Hentoff serving his remaining years on the Supreme Court?