top of page

How can Catholics become Originalists?


Maybe a weird question until you remember that the US Supreme Court is dominated by Catholic originalists. Now that is something to ponder!


This is worth pondering, at least from my perspective, because recent decisions by the Supreme Court have not promoted a climate of justice but the opposite. Their decisions on such issues as abortion, affirmative action, citizens united, discrimination, and voting rights have pushed “liberty and justice for all” further away.


As the law professor, Erwin Chemerinsky, argues in his book, Worse Than Nothing: The Dangerous Fallacy of Originalism (2022), they have used the theory of originalism as a blanket to cover-up their ultra-conservative values.


The theory of originalism holds that the Founder’s intention and/or what the text says determines the meaning of the Constitution. Instead of trying to make laws, the originalist justices apply the laws as they were written by the writers who wrote them. For example, they take the “Equal Protection Clause” of the 14th Amendment as protecting only African Americans but not women, gays, and lesbians because after the Civil War, the writers did not have them in mind (p. 87).


If one supported the equal rights of women, gays, and lesbians, then, of course, the 14th Amendment would belong to a larger justification of all persons’ equal rights. That’s closer to the traditional Catholic theory of textual interpretation.


I am not a member of the Catholic church, but my doctoral studies focused on different theories of interpretation, so I do appreciate the multiple levels of Catholic analysis of scripture as a better alternative than a method that looks a lot like evangelical literalism.


There are various church interpretative practices, of course, that range from those who believe there is only one right interpretation of a text, to those who imagine multiple interpretations. I come closer to the latter.


The on-line newsletter, Aleteia, quotes the following from the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:


Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted with the help of the Holy Spirit and under the guidance of the Magisterium of the Church according to three criteria 1) it must be read with attention to the content and unity of the whole of scripture; 2) it must be read within the living tradition of the church; 3) it must be read with attention to the analogy of faith, that is, the inner harmony that exists among the truths of the faith themselves ((Philip Kosloski, 06/28/20).


If I were to translate this triad for the interpretation of the Constitution, I would say that the Constitution must be read and interpreted with a sense of civic solemnity, and in the company of those who have struggled for and protected its promise for justice, according to three criteria: it must be read with attention to its content and the greater whole to which it belongs, it must be read historically, and it must be read with the hopes and dreams of all the people.


If I were a Catholic, I wonder what it would take for me to abandon the multilayered Catholic tradition of textual interpretation and to submit to the narrow Originalist’s interpretation of the Constitution. I guess I would have to have different values, since it’s one’s values that lie behind one’s interpretative theory.


I do support the separation of church and state, but when a religious tradition could help us improve our civic climate, even move us toward a climate of justice, it would be a good idea to use it.

34 views0 comments
Follow The Blog

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page