Monday, January 25, 2010

Mitchell Bard on Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas: No Greater Threat to Principles of Democracy

In my weekend news roundup two days ago, I wrote about how the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission strikes at the roots of democracy--as did the recent decision to prevent filming of the prop 8 trial after the federal judge presiding in that trial had approved filming.  I noted in this posting--as I've done in previous postings--that the gentlemen justices striking at democracy on SCOTUS are all Catholic justices.  As a fellow Catholic, one who believes that Catholic values move against the rule of economic and political elites that these justices are defending, I intend to keep noting the right-wing activism of the five Catholic men on the Supreme Court.

I'm interested to read Mitchell Bard's commentary on what SCOTUS did re: Citizens United.  In Bard's view, through their right-wing activism, Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas are "a danger to our long-cherished basic democratic principles."  Bard notes,

President Obama said of the decision that he could not "think of anything more devastating to the public interest." In the often-hyperbolized world of political statements, it's easy to dismiss his concern as exaggerated. I assure you it is not. In short, in my opinion, there is no internal threat to traditional American principles of democracy greater than Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito, as revealed in this decision, and it is time for Americans to wake up and see what these four extremists, far out of step with the average citizen, are doing to our country.

In Bard's view, the extreme-right justices on SCOTUS (all Catholic males) are as activist as they come:

But here is the dirty little secret the GOP doesn't want you to know: The four extreme right wing Supreme Court justices are as activist as any judges can get, seeking to use their seats on the Court as a way to undo decades (sometimes more) of precedent in the service of enacting conservative policies. More precisely, the Roberts Court consistently chooses the side of those with power over those without it. As Bruce Shapiro put it in the Nation in 2007, the Roberts Court had showed "an almost gleeful judicial activism aimed not at any particular policy but at the basic configuration of power in this country. Antitrust means antiregulation, free speech means muzzling student protest, desegregation means maintaining segregation."

As I said in my posting on Saturday, the critical question that must be asked about these justices' attack on democratic values and institutions is how one gets to that point from Catholic values.  The activism of these justices consistently chooses the side of those with power over those without it.  Catholic social teaching moves in precisely the opposite direction--to a defense of those without power, when the powerful seek to oppress the powerless.

One can only conclude that these extreme-right activist judges are defending a version of Catholic teaching and Catholic values that is not at all deeply rooted in the social teaching of the Catholic church (though it may well dominate the behavior of many pastoral leaders of the Catholic church at present).  It is an autocratic, top-down, patriarchal version of Catholicism that is scornful of democracy.

This version of Catholicism prevailed in official sectors in the church prior to Vatican II.  In key respects, the Second Vatican Council was a correction of this understanding of Catholicism, with its insistence that the church ought to be allied with social and economic elites in order to pursue its business effectively.

Whereas the first Vatican council had accentuated papal power--that is, centralized, top-down control of the church--in response to the rise of democracy in the Western world,  Vatican II focused on collegiality, on the shared calling of all believers to discern the Spirit's direction in church and culture.  Vatican II's retrieval of the ancient biblical and patristic image of the church as people of God was a corrective to the top-down, autocratic, anti-democratic ecclesiology that dominated the Catholic church in the period from the Council of Trent through Vatican I and up to the Second Vatican Council.

It's not hard to understand why the Catholic men on the Supreme Court choose implicitly to rehabilitate a pre-Vatican I ecclesiology, through their attacks on democracy.  They do so because they instinctively side with economic and political elites that are threatened by core concepts of democracy, including transparency and accountability on the part of institutions and their leaders.

And the extreme-right Catholic gentlemen on SCOTUS side with reactionary, anti-democratic readings of Catholicism because their chief allies in the hierarchy of the U.S. Catholic church--men like Charles Chaput and Raymond Burke--are also deeply suspicious of democratic values and institutions.  It it these leaders who have led the American Catholic church into the dead-end political position of slavish, unthinking adulation of one political party and demonization of another.  It is these leaders who have put all of their eggs into the "pro-life" basket, but whose pro-life strategy centers solely around attempts to abolish Roe v. Wade through behind-the-scenes maneuvering to try to control the political process.

As I've noted repeatedly on this blog, the pro-life strategy of the leaders of American Catholicism has come to a dead end because it places no trust at all in the ability of the Catholic tradition, reasonably presented in open, public dialogue, to change people's minds and hearts and help them understand the implications of a consistent ethic of life.  It trusts instead in the machinations of naked theocratic power to force people to do what reasonable discussion has not led them to do.

And when that trust in theocratic power is wedded to support for economic elites whose core values are anything but the values of Catholic social teaching, then one has to wonder about the sincerity of the claim of the leaders of American Catholicism (and of the Catholic gentlemen justices) that they are ardently pro-life.