At first glance, Catholic Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Pope Francis didn’t appear to have much in common. Scalia didn’t even bother to attend Francis’s groundbreaking speech to Congress this past September. (He’s been skipping State of the Unions for years as well.)
They certainly didn’t share the same politics.
- Scalia argued that the death penalty was “morally acceptable;” Francis has called for its near-universal abolition.
- Scalia defended the legality of Texas’ inane law criminalizing gay sex; Francis has said of gay people: “Who am I to judge?”
- Scalia defended Arizona’s right to do almost anything to keep “unwanted immigrants” out; Francis says a nation that doesn’t welcome immigrants lacks compassion and will be judged harshly by God.
In truth, beyond these profound political disagreements, Scalia and Francis, both products of Jesuit education, had a lot more in common than people might suppose.
For one, both men talked about the devil — a lot. “I even believe in the Devil,” Scalia told New York Magazine in 2013.
“You do?” the interviewer asked, somewhat surprised.
“Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that.”
Pope Francis would agree. In his first homily after his election, Francis talked about the devil in graphic language: “When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.”
He hasn’t stopped since. His often-colorful language about the prince of darkness confounds those who wrongly view Francis as a modern liberal. Perhaps that’s the work of the devil, too, who Francis says “always rips us off.”
But if St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, is right, Scalia and Francis’ faith is best demonstrated by their deeds rather their words.
If that is the litmus test, both man pass with flying colors. One example alone attests to this. Both men, inspired by their Catholic faith in God and in Jesus Christ, embraced modern-day lepers.
Scalia did so quietly several years ago, in a small traditional Catholic parish in Washington, DC. Here’s how Jeffrey Tucker, a research fellow at the Acton Institute, described it:
It was a spring afternoon some years ago, and he was attending church services, sitting in a back pew, holding his prayer book in his hands. The Mass had ended and most people had gone. He was still saying prayers, alone in the back pew.
He finally got up and began to walk out. There were no reporters, nobody watching. There was only a woman who had been attending the same services. She had no idea who he was. I was a bystander, and I’m certain he didn’t know I was there.
What was a bit unusual about this woman: she had lashing sores on her face and hands. They were open sores. There was some disease, and not just physically. She behaved strangely, a troubled person that you meet in large cities and quickly walk away from. A person to avoid and certainly never touch.
For whatever reason, she walked up to Justice Scalia, who was alone. He took her hands, though they were full of sores. She leaned in to say something, and she began to cry.
He held her face next to his, and she talked beneath her tears that were now streaming down his suit. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t try to get away. He just held her while she spoke. This lasted for perhaps more than 5 minutes. He closed his eyes while she spoke, gripping her back with his hand.
He didn’t recoil. He stood there with conviction. And love.
Francis, too, has held lepers. Most notable was in November 2013, when he held a young man with severe facial disfiguration during a Wednesday audience in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. Of the experience, the man, Vinicio Riva, said:
I’m not contagious, but he didn’t know that. But he just did it: he caressed me all over my face, and as he did I felt only love.
He came down from the altar to see the sick people. He embraced me without saying a word. I felt as though my heart was leaving my body.
It’s strangely fitting that Antonin Scalia’s last day of life occurred in west Texas, not far from the border of the United States and Mexico where Pope Francis will say Mass in a few days. For the second time in five months, Scalia and Francis will be near each other, but just miss meeting. Perhaps no better situation describes their relationship.
Both American sons of Italian immigrants, they were on the same team playing on the same field. But different life experiences meant they would never truly crossed paths — physically, intellectually, and spiritually — but if our faith is true, perhaps they’ll see each other in the cosmic Hall of Fame some day soon.
Scalia’s favorite saint was Thomas More. He famously wore the hat of the 16th-century English lawyer to President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, perhaps in a silent protest of the Administration’s controversial contraception mandate that Scalia said violated the Catholic Church’s religious liberty. The man for all seasons, Thomas More, said before his execution by King Henry that he died “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Despite all the controversy he caused, so did Antonin Scalia die: a loyal patriot, a devout Catholic, and a good man. May he rest in the peace of Christ.