Scalia urges audience not to reject possibility of miracles

Supreme Court Justice is mostly mum on political issues
The Colorado Statesman

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia urged Catholics to have “the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world” during a keynote address at a religious conference on Saturday at the Colorado Convention Center.

Catholics shouldn’t worry that intellectual non-believers regard the faithful as “poorly educated and easily led,” Scalia told the standing-room-only crowd of roughly 1,000 participants at the two-day Living the Catholic Faith Conference.

Charting a course from the early days of the church through Medieval times up to the skeptical treatment of what he termed demonstrated miracles in the nation’s capitol city, Scalia noted that Christians have always had to face ridicule and derision for adherence to their faith.

The conservative Scalia, 75, is the longest-serving current Supreme Court justice — he was appointed by President Reagan in 1986 — and is one of six Catholics on the nine-member high court, along with Chief Justice John Rogers and Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayer.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia departs the stage after delivering a keynote address to a standing-room-only crowd of about 1,000 at the Living the Catholic Faith Conference on March 3 at the Colorado Convention Center.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

While the conflict between Catholic leaders and politicians has heated up in recent weeks over the Obama administration’s plans to require insurance companies to provide free contraception, Scalia kept his remarks broad and didn’t reference an American politician more current than Thomas Jefferson. He pointed toward Jefferson’s 1804 effort, “razor-in-hand,” at editing the New Testament to excise the outlandish, the miraculous and the irrational from it, producing “a Gospel fit for the age of Reason.”

Clucking to an appreciative crowd, Scalia noted that Jefferson — like plenty of other worldly critics — freely cast aside basic articles of Catholic faith, including the virgin birth and Christ’s resurrection, in order to construct a religious text devoid of any religion. Jefferson had deemed the Gospel’s miraculous elements “really quite absurd,” perhaps, Scalia suggested to peals of laughter from the crowd, because the authors of the Gospel had just imagined them, “presumably part of their clever plan to get themselves crucified.”

“My point is not that reason and intellect must be laid aside where matters of religion are concerned,” Scalia said. “Surely not. A faith without a rational basis is a false faith. That is why I am not a Branch Davidian. It is not irrational, however, to accept the testimony of eyewitnesses who had nothing to gain.”

Even in the face of eyewitness accounts, Scalia cautioned, sophisticates still turn a cold shoulder to miracles and refuse to believe their own eyes.

“What is irrational, it seems to me — irrational! — is to reject, a priori, with no investigation, the possibility of miracles in general and of Jesus Christ’s resurrection in particular,” Scalia said. “Which is precisely what the worldly-wise will do — they just will not have anything to do with miracles.”

After recounting the story of St. Thomas More — martyred for refusing to bend to political winds during the Reformation in England — Scalia offered the prayer that More penned while imprisoned in the Tower of London: “Give me the grace, good Lord… not to hang upon the blast of men’s mouths.”

“It has been my hope to impart to you, who are already wise in Christ, the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity,” Scalia concluded.

The speech struck a powerful note with the Rev. Monsignor Thomas Fryar, pastor of Denver’s Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and Vicar General at the Chancery at the Archdiocese.

“He came to share what the nature of our faith has always been — that we live in a world that will never fully accept the nature of the faith that we are called to live,” said Fryar. “We saw it in the time of Christ, we saw it throughout the Middle Ages, we see it in the current day. We see it in the world around us that quite often thinks we are old fashioned, silly, simple, not very reflective if we follow the teachings of our Lord. And in spite of that, we shouldn’t give it up.”

Hearing the message — admittedly not a new one for the assembled Catholics — was illuminating coming from Scalia, Fryar observed.

“He’s not sharing theory,” he said. “You can tell by the way he made his presentation, that what he’s talking about is his own faith experience, and I can’t help but believe in his own life, he’s often challenged by, ‘How can a man of your stature, your wisdom, your education, be so old-fashioned as to have a faith like the Catholic religion?’ It’s inspiring to know that there are people who are willing to stand up for what they believe in the day and age we live in.”

Broomfield resident Celeste Hogue, called it a “blessing” that Scalia traveled the distance to address the conference, crediting the influence of former Archbishop of Denver Charles Chaput for helping bring one of the country’s most prominent Catholics to town.

“Our society today, it’s being run by a bunch of people who think they’re intellectuals but are actually missing the point,” Hogue said after Scalia’s speech. “They’re really pagans. I think it’s really sad that here we have the technology we have today, and we’re probably less educated than the people of the Middle Ages when it comes to humanity, human rights.”

She said Scalia’s talk had inspired her to continue her fight to enact her faith in the world.

“Some of the audacities you read in the paper, you think, in this age when we have all this knowledge, we’re missing God and God is the foundation of all knowledge,” she said. “You can’t eliminate him from schools, you can’t try to eliminate him from society, like they’re doing.”

A young Catholic said Scalia’s words had left him energized to stay “involved in the public sphere.”

Lakewood resident Zach Candler, 25, said he attended Republican caucuses in Jefferson County for the first time last month but plans to ramp up his participation in politics — “not as a politician, but as a citizen, representing our views and our values as a Catholic.”

He said he liked what Scalia had to say.

“It was a good reminder that, sometimes, the wisdom of the world is contrary to the wisdom or the challenge of our faith,” Candler said. “His exhortation at the end was just to be courageous in light of the fact that people may call you a fool — or, more likely, they’re just going to marginalize you — but we need to be courageous in spite of that.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com