Wednesday, May 6, 2009

In advance, a likely no comment

The retirement of Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter has prompted a lot of comments. Some have commented that the nominee to fill the high court vacancy should be dedicated to interpreting the Constitution rather than "legislating from the bench." President Obama commented that he wants a justice with "empathy."

And when the White House announces its pick in the coming days or weeks, a face and a personal and professional background will enter this discussion, eliciting even more comments.

In the midst of all this, it might be worth noting in advance that the U.S. bishops, as a body, will likely be making "no comment" on the nominee. This isn't because the matter is somehow unimportant, or that there won't be something of note to say about Obama's pick for the court. It's simply that the bishops don't make a habit on commenting on individual nominees, whether for the Supreme Court, cabinet posts or otherwise.

In spite of this trend, it wouldn't be fair to say we somehow have a shortage of official statements from the U.S. bishops or the Catholic Church at the national level. From specific policy decisions by the Obama Administration on matters of human life and dignity to specific legislation before Congress, from the 2009 H1N1 virus to the 2010 census, the U.S. bishops speak out consistently on matters facing the Catholic Church and the world today.

But then what makes nominees for the cabinet, judiciary, etc. so different? Apart from the admonition of Jesus to judge not lest we be judged, the best answer to this question probably resides with Justice Souter himself. His evolution from safe conservative nominee to reliably liberal justice is Supreme Court folklore. It doesn't take much to envision the nightmare of the U.S. bishops being on record saying, "this nominee's grrrrreat," only to have the new justice turn around and rule with the majority in, for instance, a case striking down abortion restrictions in all 50 states.

A piece of legislation or an executive order is concrete and static and can be studied and approved or disapproved by anyone, including the U.S. bishops. A human being, made in the image of God and given free will, is full of surprises.

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