Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a former University of Virginia law professor and outspoken Catholic with a reputation for blunt straightforwardness, lived up to his reputation Thursday evening during a 60-minute lecture and question-and-answer session in Newcomb Hall on religion.
People of faith are seen as foolish or naïve by much of today’s educated and intellectual class, Scalia said, adding that it’s important for Christians not to be ashamed of their faith.
“You’ve always got to be open to discussing your faith,” he said. “Be eager to discuss it.”
Scalia said, in response to a question on the state of the Catholic Church, “I think the church has been in trouble for a while.”
Members have lost some of their zeal for spreading the church’s beliefs, he said. He recalled, during a visit to England during his college years, seeing a priest preaching on a street corner in the face of heckling.
“We’ve sort of lost that,” Scalia said.
He was critical of his alma mater, Georgetown University, for drifting from its Catholic roots, citing a 2009 controversy where officials covered up a religious motto when President Barack Obama came to speak. Other Catholic universities are making a similar move away from their faith, he said.
“When I was at Georgetown, it was a very Catholic place. It’s not anymore – and that’s too bad,” Scalia said. “What has happened to Catholic universities, that they would lose their reason for being?”
Scalia has taken heavy criticism in the past for downplaying the phrase “separation of church and state." He reiterated his position Thursday evening, when he answered a student who asked if America was truly a Christian nation. Scalia said the phrase, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, is often misunderstood.
“He did not believe in the ‘wall of separation of church and state’ you often hear him quoted for,” Scalia said.
Jefferson wrote that phrase in a letter to the Danbury Baptist association of Connecticut. It has been cited in Supreme Court rulings, but critics say it has been misinterpreted and taken out of context, that Jefferson was addressing the concerns of the association that the right of religious freedom could be taken away.
Scalia characterized Jefferson as a religious man, quoting from his Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the forerunner to First Amendment protections on religious freedom. The statute begins, “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it … tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion. …”
Scalia quipped, “Put this in your pipe for separation of church and state.”
One audience member asked about Pope Francis’ comments on homosexuality. The pope recently made international headlines when, in response to a question about homosexual priests, said, “Who am I to judge?” This was a departure from his predecessor, who wrote in 2005 that homosexuality is “an objective disorder.”
Scalia said nothing Francis said was out of line with church teachings. All Francis said was that he couldn’t judge — that has always been the church’s teaching, Scalia said.
“We don’t know for sure if Judas Iscariot is in hell,” he said. “We don’t judge anybody. … He didn’t say whether it was objectively wrong, or whether people who engage in it are going to heaven or not. Who knows?”
The event was hosted by the St. Anselm Institute for Catholic Thought, an organization on Grounds dedicated to the preservation of the intellectual tradition of the church. The institute often holds public lectures with Catholic scholars, but director John Miller said this might be the biggest speaker yet.
“We’ve had people from all walks of life here, but we’ve never had anyone from the Supreme Court,” Miller said.
Susan Villageliu, a community member who attended the event, said she appreciated Scalia’s candor. She’s seen him at Supreme Court hearings, where he exhibits the same qualities.
“He’s a very lively, feisty justice,” Villageliu said.