Posts Tagged ‘Antonin Scalia’

At any Christian funeral, we give thanks for “God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner”

February 26, 2016

The following is from a letter that the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote to the Presbyterian pastor who presided at the funeral of Justice Lewis Powell back in 1998. Scalia refers to “encomiums”—what we Methodists might call eulogies—which, Scalia says, are forbidden at Catholic funerals, in principle if not practice. I didn’t realize until too recently—I say to my shame—that the funerals I presided at were mostly encomiums.

For the past four or five years, however, I’ve shared Scalia’s conviction that the primary purpose of funerals is to proclaim the gospel and our resurrection hope.

Of course, if Scalia is right—and I’m sure he is in this case—I also need to proclaim the gospel at weddings!

Good heavens, if I received any such letter from a sitting Supreme Court justice, I’m afraid my head wouldn’t fit through the door! I hope the Rev. Dr. Goodloe is more humble than I am!

Supreme Court of the United States
Washington, D. C. 20543


September 1, 1998

Dr. James C. Goodloe
Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church
1627 Monument Avenue
Richmond, Virginia 23220-2925

Dear Dr. Goodloe:

I looked for you unsuccessfully at the luncheon following the funeral yesterday. I wanted to tell you how reverent and inspiring I found the service that you conducted.

In my aging years, I have attended so many funerals of prominent people that I consider myself a connoisseur of the genre. When the deceased and his family are nonbelievers, of course, there is not much to be said except praise for the departed who is no more. But even in Christian services conducted for deceased Christians , I am surprised at how often eulogy is the centerpiece of the service, rather than (as it was in your church) the Resurrection of Christ, and the eternal life which follows from that. I am told that, in Roman Catholic canon law, encomiums at funeral Masses are not permitted—though if that is the rule, I have never seen it observed except in the breach. I have always thought there is much to be said for such a prohibition, not only because it spares from embarrassment or dissembling those of us about whom little good can truthfully be said, but also because, even when the deceased was an admirable person—indeed, especially when the deceased was an admirable person—praise for his virtues can cause us to forget that we are praying for, and giving thanks for, God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner. (My goodness, that seems more like a Presbyterian thought than a Catholic one!)

Perhaps the clergymen who conduct relatively secular services are moved by a desire not to offend the nonbelievers in attendance—whose numbers tend to increase in proportion to the prominence of the deceased. What a great mistake. Weddings and funerals (but especially funerals) are the principal occasions left in modern America when you can preach the Good News not just to the faithful, but to those who have never really heard it.

Many thanks, Dr. Goodloe, for a service that did honor to Lewis and homage to God. It was a privilege to sit with your congregation. Best regards.


Antonin Scalia

“Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil”

October 8, 2013

I wasn’t interested in the philosophical discussion about the law, but Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gets my attention in this interview when he talks about his faith. After saying that he believes in heaven and hell, he offers the following to the surprised interviewer:

Can we talk about your drafting process—
[Leans in, stage-whispers.] I even believe in the Devil.

You do?
Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that.

Every Catholic believes this? There’s a wide variety of Catholics out there …
If you are faithful to Catholic dogma, that is certainly a large part of it.

Have you seen evidence of the Devil lately?
You know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore.

It’s because he’s smart.

So what’s he doing now?
What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.

That has really painful implications for atheists. Are you sure that’s the ­Devil’s work?
I didn’t say atheists are the Devil’s work.

Well, you’re saying the Devil is ­persuading people to not believe in God. Couldn’t there be other reasons to not believe?
Well, there certainly can be other reasons. But it certainly favors the Devil’s desires. I mean, c’mon, that’s the explanation for why there’s not demonic possession all over the place. That always puzzled me. What happened to the Devil, you know? He used to be all over the place. He used to be all over the New Testament.

What happened to him?

He just got wilier.
He got wilier.

Isn’t it terribly frightening to believe in the Devil?
You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It’s in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil! Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.

A couple of minor objections: Christianity Today cites statistics that suggest that not as many Christians in America (Catholic or otherwise) believe in the devil as he thinks. Also, I strongly suspect that evidence for the devil’s handiwork is as conspicuous as ever: what’s changed is our ability to recognize his activity. If one’s secular worldview excludes belief in a spiritual realm, then one would rarely look beyond naturalistic causes for any event. Don’t you think that makes a huge difference?

After all, if we saw pigs run off a cliff today, we wouldn’t interpret that it was Satan’s work. The pigs weren’t flying or doing anything against nature.

Regardless, his basic point—and his reason for indignation at the interviewer—remains.

My own “re-conversion” to believing in Satan took place over years, but it started toward the end of my seminary career. Like many of my classmates, I was happily liberal on the subject: Satan was merely a symbol for evil that was caused by human beings. Then a favorite professor of mine—brilliant, sarcastic, fiercely intellectual—told our class that he believed in the devil.

I was taken aback: here’s someone who was much smarter than me, at least as “worldly wise” and much better read, yet he still believes in the devil. Why?

Then you read up on the subject and realize, as Scalia said, that “many more intelligent people than you” have believed in the devil.

I’m not proud of this: I shouldn’t have needed someone to appeal to my intellectual vanity to change my belief in the devil—it should have been enough that our Lord clearly believed in Satan. But that’s where I was at the time.

“Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.”