Judge Sonia Sotomayor has much to distinguish her, but one element of her biography stands out in the world of those interested in religion and the public square: she is Catholic, and, if approved as a Supreme Court justice, she will be the sixth Catholic on the nine-member court. That is a remarkable accomplishment for American Catholics, who make up 23 percent of the nation's population, and will now potentially hold 67 percent of the high court's seats. Two of the justices are Jewish; the resignation of Justice David Souter, who is an Episcopalian, will leave, amazingly given the history of this nation, just one Protestant on the Supreme Court, 89-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens.
Undoubtedly, Sotomayor's Catholic-ness will be the subject of some debate. Just how Catholic is she? Steven Waldman, blogging at Beliefnet, quotes a White House official saying, "Judge Sotomayor was raised as a Catholic and attends church for family celebrations and other important events."
David Gibson, also at Beliefnet, suggests there may be a strategic reason for Sotomayor to downplay her faith affiliation:
"The (awful) question will now be, what KIND of Catholic is she? She is divorced, without kids. Heck, she may want to downplay her practice of the faith as that will be a huge target--and it's easy to guess who'll be lobbing most of the heavy ordinance."
And Cathy Lynn Grossman, blogging for USA Today, makes a similar prediction:
"Next up: Expect her nomination to re-ignite the ongoing Catholic blogosphere wars over who is Catholic enough. If confirmed, Sotomayor, who grew up in Catholic schools in the Bronx, would be the sixth Catholic on the high court. It may be that her life experiences will align her with the social justice issues pushed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on race, poverty, immigration and economic issues. But for some outspoken Catholics, the 'life' issues -- abortion, family planning, so-called 'conscience clauses' for health workers, embryonic stem cell research and end-of-life choices -- are the litmus test."
Over at GetReligion, Terry Mattingly wonders why the word "Catholic" is not more a part of the early press coverage, and asks if that would be different if Sotomayor were a known opponent of abortion rights:
"Her life story will be a big part of the upcoming mini-debates about her appointment. Here is my question: If she was a pro-life woman, from a Hispanic background, do you think that the word 'Catholic' would be appearing higher in these early (I repeat, EARLY) reports about her life and work? Just saying."
What does it matter if Sotomayor is Catholic? Jacqui Salmon, blogging for the Washington Post, suggests perhaps not much, at least as far as judicial decisionmaking is concerned:
"Experts have been split on what the Catholic majority has meant so far. They point out that Catholics on the bench historically have spanned the spectrum from liberal to conservative. Dennis J. Hutchinson, a court historian at the University of Chicago, noted in 2005 that one of the most liberal Supreme Court justices of the 20th century, William J. Brennan, was a Catholic, and so is one of the most conservative, Scalia."
Manya Brachear, blogging for the Chicago Tribune, tackles the same question, and comes to the same conclusion, although also pointing out the symbolic significance:
"Cathleen Kaveny, law professor at the University of Notre Dame, said a sixth Catholic in the High Court would illustrate how entrenched the church has become in the U.S. A sixth Catholic with views like Sotomayor's also would put the American church’s diversity on display. 'My guess is she’s very much operating in accordance with the commitments of the Catholic social justice tradition which is emphasizing … inclusion, solidarity, justice to those least among us,' Kaveny said. 'It’s strand of American Catholic teaching that is somewhat distinct from other Catholic teaching but not incompatible. People emphasize different aspects.'"
Catholic groups are just now beginning to react to the nomination. Catholics United, a liberal group, reacted positively, and said, "We call on other leaders within the Catholic community to join us in welcoming Judge Sotomayor's nomination and to approach her confirmation hearings with civility and reason." I haven't heard yet from conservative Catholic groups, but in general the reaction from the right has been critical. Ted Olsen, blogging at Christianity Today, reviews the early statements and headlines his post, "Pro-Life Group Consensus on Sotomayor: 'Activist'."
Meanwhile, one thing that struck me in President Obama's remarks about Sotomayor this morning was the language he used to describe the role of Catholic schools in offering children a path out of poverty. This is what he said:
"When Sonia was nine, her father passed away. And her mother worked six days a week as a nurse to provide for Sonia and her brother...But Sonia's mom bought the only set of encyclopedias in the neighborhood, sent her children to a Catholic school called Cardinal Spellman out of the belief that with a good education here in America all things are possible."
(Photo, by Jim Young/Reuters, shows Judge Sonia Sotomayor talking with President Obama at the White House this morning, May 26, 2009.)