Fondly Remembering Tim Russert—Death of a Partisan

I was on

Meet the Press

only once. Paired with Mario Cuomo, for whom Tim once worked, other lesser hosts might be expected to favor their old boss. Not Tim. Tim was indeed a partisan

for truth as best as it could be ascertained by the human mind in the exploration of opposing points of view.

On that Sunday, it was my task to defend the proposition that it was improper to deny John Roberts’ nomination to the court on the basis of his Catholic faith. Prominent scholars and senators had argued that Roberts was unsuitable for the bench given his Catholicism and the church’s well-known opposition to abortion. This line of questioning was contrary to the prohibition of religious-test oaths and the spirit of the free exercise clause, I argued. Moreover, I contended, Catholic teaching treated those who stand for judicial post differently from legislators and the executive.  Gov. Cuomo insisted that the questioning was both proper and that the church made no such distinction, with highly conservative prelates even insisting that Catholic public figures be denied communion if they didn’t toe the church line.

Several things were immediately apparent: Tim likely knew as much or more about the topic than either of his guests, and he was not about to let either of us dodge the more difficult nuances of the question. Indeed, somewhat ironically now, in light of my own recent denial of communion for endorsing Sen. Obama , Tim would ask us about such threatened refusals of the sacrament. The colloquy went like this:

MR. RUSSERT: Professor, many Catholic politicians are faced with the following prospect, that individual bishops in different dioceses can refuse them Communion if they are seen as proponents of abortion. If, in fact, as you said, the Supreme Court in effect formulated the law in Roe vs. Wade, if a Catholic justice of the Court doesn’t take assertive steps to undo that law, could they be denied Communion in respective dioceses and is that an appropriate pressure from the Catholic Church?

PROF. KMIEC:  … Cardinal McCarrick here in Washington said it the best. This is a question of pastoral counseling. It’s not something that really should be dealt with at the Communion rail. … The sacraments shouldn’t be used as a weapon. … But again, the Supreme Court of the United States really needs to [re-] examine [abortion] as a matter of law … not as a matter of Catholic faith … not as a matter of any other personal philosophy. It’s a question of whether abortion … can be found in the text and history and structure of the Constitution.

At that point, I decided to interject a bit of Kmiec interpretive theory on the Constitution that is not presently shared by the court itself: namely that constitutional text ought to be interpreted in light of the declared “self-evident truth” of the Declaration of Independence that we are “created equal” with an “unalienable right to life.”

“There’s no conflict between John Roberts’ faith and this constitutional system,” I argued, “because this constitutional system is premised upon the dignity of the human person.” As a matter of his own Catholic faith, I speculated that Tim would let my advocacy pass without rebuttal. Silly me. Of course, Tim would not personally inject his Catholic view. Rather, in fidelity to the high standards of journalism that by disciplined mind and hard work became part of Tim when he left politics, he adroitly questioned the governor, illustrating that the way Catholic jurists like Justice Scalia avoid an irreconcilable conflict between faith and law is not with my fancy professorial theory but simply by sticking to the text of the Constitution, which says nothing about the subject.

Cuomo affirmed the Scalia position, and in one masterful move, Tim brought the conversation back to its original focus, illustrating in a unique way some common ground. Whether Cuomo realized it or not, his affirmation of Scalia underscored my original contention that if judges follow their intended role, they have no moral complicity in the laws they interpret. But it also allowed Cuomo an opening to reaffirm his longstanding view that Catholics cannot just impose their doctrine on their non-Catholic American neighbors at least without extended and respectful argument in the democratic process (or, I might add, persuading jurists that the Constitution has an intended and inescapable natural law foundation).

One thing I know for sure, St. Peter is in no position to give Tim a hard time at the gate. If there is any delay whatsoever, look for Tim to sit the onetime fishermen and early church organizer down at the table and with that smiling but tenaciously prepared look ask, as heavenly PowerPoint goes up on the screen of judgment: “Isn’t it true, Peter, that earlier on the night before he died, you denied him three times, and yet here you are today the keeper of the gate of the kingdom. How do you explain that?” Like so many other guests on Meet the Press when confronted with the thoroughness of Tim’s preparations revealing an undeniable inconsistency of their own words, I suspect Peter might be tempted to bob and weave his way to some sort of answer. Advice to the first pontiff: Don’t try it. Just wave Tim on through he more than deserves it.