U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia defended the rationality of Christian faith last night at Saint Thomas More Chapel, speaking to a full house of undergraduates, law students and local residents.
Scalia — a practicing Catholic who has served on the Supreme Court for nearly 30 years — gave a talk entitled “Not to the wise: Christian as Cretin.” The event, which drew nearly 300 people, stood at the intersection of law and religion, as well as secular higher education and spiritual life at Yale.
Scalia, at the request of former Yale Law School Dean Guido Calabresi ’53 LAW ’58, came to deliver a speech that criticized disparaging attitudes towards Christianity in academia and media. Scalia invoked the notion of Christians as “fools for Christ” and transformed it into a badge of honor rather than ignorance.
“My point isn’t that reason and intellect need to be laid aside,” Scalia said, emphasizing the importance of rationalism. “A faith that has no rational basis is no faith.”
Scalia took up the life of Saint Thomas More himself to exemplify the defensibility of rational Catholic faith, which Assistant Pastor Eddie DeLeon called “a nice touch … since Saint Thomas More is the patron of the center.”
Calabresi — in whose honor the chapel’s Fellowship for Religion and Law was endowed eight years ago — complemented Scalia’s speech with his own take on the relationship between conscience and judicial adherence to the law as the final word. His speech included statements that diverged from Scalia’s, prompting Scalia to gently mock afterwards: “I thought [Judge Calabresi] said you’ve got to bend the law for it to conform to your conscience.”
The event took a turn towards the legal during the question-and-answer session, when audience members asked Scalia questions on topics such as the role of religious life at an elite higher education institution and Scalia’s journey to the bench.
Although he was willing to speak on past decisions and general opinions, Scalia was tight-lipped when attendee Angela Pollard ’16 asked about his thoughts on corporations and organizations taking religious stances.
“You will soon know,” Scalia said cryptically in response.
Scalia also spoke about his experience on the bench at large. In particular he highlighted the positive changes he believes the Supreme Court has undergone during his term. Since he has joined, the Court has gone from a “cold bench” to an environment in which justices ask more frequent questions, he said.
“By my light, the law has marginally improved in the long time I’ve been on the court,” Scalia said. “I think with religious clauses we do a better job than we did 30 years ago. I like what we’ve done on the Second Amendment, needless to say, since I did it.”
In 2008, Scalia wrote the majority opinion for District of Columbia v. Heller, defending the individual’s right to own a firearm.
Students at the event said they came for a variety of reasons.
Rodney Evans ’14, who is writing his thesis on theories of punishment, said the religious focus of the event was notable.
“It was much more sermon-esque [than I was expecting],” he said, adding that he was impressed by the amount of theology in Scalia’s speech.
After the event, Scalia fielded requests from interested audience members asking for photo-ops and Scalia’s advice on law schools. Security was tightened for the event, and bags were checked in front of the chapel and inspected by dogs able to sniff explosives.
Scalia is also speaking at Yale Law School on Thursday to the Federalist Society, a group that emphasizes constitutional originalism and textualism whose lecture circuit he regularly travels.
”I’m a big fan of Justice Scalia — I think he’s incredibly intelligent, and obviously any opportunity to hear a Supreme Court justice is an amazing one,” Catherine Shaw ’16 said. “This is the reason why you come to Yale, for stuff like this.”
Saint Thomas More Chapel Chaplain and Father Robert Beloin, who helped organize the event, said that speaking engagement such as Scalia’s allow the chapel to open up a dialogue with other sectors of the Yale population and promote Catholic intellectual life on campus.
Scalia is the longest-serving justice on the current Supreme Court.