NEW ORLEANS (LA)
Justia [Mountain View CA]
November 22, 2023
By Kathryn Robb
While reading about the recent 71st Red Mass at the St. Louis Cathedral in Louisiana, I noticed six of the seven Louisiana Supreme Court Justices standing in the first pew, which struck me as inappropriate, or as my parochial Latin class taught me, improprius, or improper. And then there was this, “The Louisiana Supreme Court Justices and I attend Red Mass for the divine blessing of wisdom, understanding, counsel, and discernment in decision-making relative to the administration of laws and justice for those we serve,” said Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice John L. Weimer.
A blessing in “decision-making.”
Unless they punt the issue again, these six justices will soon deliberate on the constitutionality of legislation passed by the Louisiana legislature in 2021. That legislation seeks to remedy the very worst type of injustice – claims by victims of child sexual abuse. And, most notably here, legislation that Archbishop Gregory Aymond—the person before whom those six justices kneel at this mass—hopes they decide in the Church’s favor.
Red is the universal signal for danger. Whether it be stop signs, traffic signals, rear brake lights, or fire alarms, warning signals are, universally, in red. Without diving too deep into a scientific explanation, it has to do with the length of red light waves and their ability to reach greater distances. More on this and its curious irony in a minute.
I considered the obvious conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety, especially considering the cases before them. I asked myself another question: why red? I attended a private Catholic school for twelve years, so I had some guesses. In the 1300s, the justices of the English Supreme Court wore scarlet robes, as did many clergy members. A theological meaning also emerged. It represented the “tongues of fire” of the holy spirit (although at my school, they referred to this spirit as the holy ghost, a term which always concerned me and my fellow students at St. Mary’s in Long Island, New York).
Imagine, if you will, the many survivors of child sexual abuse inviting the state supreme court justices to their prayer group for child sexual abuse victims. The attorneys for the New Orleans archdiocese would have sprinted to court requesting immediate recusal, a TRO, and attorney’s fees.
Public distrust and ethical concerns about the United States Supreme Court are at a record high. The red flags about the undisclosed financial transactions of Justice Clarence Thomas with Republican billionaire Harlan Crow are raising eyebrows and a call for ethical standards and rules. A recent Pew Research Center survey has the High Court’s favorability at an abysmal 44%, less than half of all Americans. Yet, the biblical worldview Speaker Mike Johnson does not want to pass ethics rules and a code of conduct for our highest court—he represents yet another inappropriate and dangerous mix of religion, law, and politics. James Madison surely saw flashing red lights when drafting the First Amendment and the prohibition against any state-established religion within the Bill of Rights.
Last week, the United States Supreme Court finally issued a Code of Conduct; although lacking the teeth of true accountability, it does frown upon outside influence, much like the Code of Judicial Conduct in Louisiana. Canon 2 reads: “A Justice Should Avoid Impropriety and the Appearance of Impropriety in ALL activities.” Section B holds, “A judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interest of the judge or others; nor shall a judge convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge.” “Others” would, and certainly should, include Bishop Aymond of the New Orleans Archdiocese, who was seen shaking hands with Chief Justice John L. Weimer before the Red Mass began.
The Red Mass emanates a flashing red light, traveling through a dense fog of uncontested church history, blurring the boundary lines of church and state. A time-worn tradition does not legitimize its pontifical practice. The light beams reach far beyond their rightful place, jeopardizing the honor of our system of separation of powers and the purpose of checks and balances. Some argue that the justices, judges, and legislative leaders are attending in their private capacity rather than as representatives of the court or legislature. Nonsense. If the justices seek guidance for the upcoming court session and attend in their state-issued, taxpayer-purchased robes, they are clearly in attendance as a governmental agent.
Let’s call it what it is—soft lobbying disguised as prayer.
And for that, the Red Mass should elicit concern and a warning to all of us, Catholics and non-Catholics alike—as the color red often does.