A Blue Ribbon Question: “Catholic Identity"
Archbishop Edwin Frederick O’Brien
Archbishop of Baltimore, Maryland
Published on the Archdiocese of Baltimore website
In the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for a seat on the Supreme Court, much
has been made of the fact that if approved, her presence on the Court will bring
the number of Catholic justices to six-- two thirds of the total.
In a New York Times article, religion reporter Laurie Goodstein notes that four
of the six Supreme Court Justices (Scalia, Thomas, Alito and the Chief Justice,
Roberts) “are reported to be committed attenders of Mass.” Judge Sotomayor, the
Times reports, is labeled a “cultural Catholic, raised in the faith but not
often attending Mass.”
In many of the news reports since her nomination, it is often noted that Judge
Sotomayor attended 12 yeas of Catholic school. I am very familiar with her alma
mater, Cardinal Spellman High School in my native Bronx, a school that, since
the mid 1960s, has been an academicallydemanding institution offering an
excellent education to a mainly blue-collar student body. The attention given
her Catholic education does beg the question whether Judge Sotomayor’s career
path would be different today were it not for that experience, which obviously
prepared her for her Harvard acceptance.
I knew Spellman High to be solidly Catholic in spirit and in consistent fidelity
to the Church and its teachings. Is that to imply that because the Judge is not
a regular “Mass attendee,” as are the other four mentioned, her high school
somehow failed in its mission? I would not say that at all.
The question, however, does bring to light the importance of our own parochial
schools’ “Catholic identity,” a key factor being addressed by our Blue Ribbon
Committee as part of their evaluation of the effectiveness of our Archdiocesan
Catholics schools. “Catholic identity,” by the way, was cited in a recent survey
by our pastors, school principals, presidents and parents as the foremost value
to be respected and preserved in our Catholic schools.
In his address to Catholic educators in Washington, D.C., in April of 2008, Pope
Benedict set some benchmarks for every level of Catholic educational
“A university or school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the
number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction…”
And then the benchmarks:
* "Do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the
mystery of man truly become clear?"
* "Are we ready to commit our entire self-intellect and will, mind and heart –to
* "Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools?"
* "Is it given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, through prayer,
acts of charity, a concern for justice and respect for God's creation?"
Extremely helpful standards, if not metrically measurable,for they serve as
challenging reference points for school administrators in their ongoing efforts
to establish and maintain our schools as verifiably Catholic. In all likelihood,
Spellman High and most of our own Archdiocesan schools – even those with largely
non-Catholic student bodies – would pass the “Benedict criteria.” But it does
take ongoing, demanding effort.
And while we can attempt to measure a school’s Catholicity with some success, we
cannot and should not seek to judge that school’s Catholicity solely or even
primarily on the basis of a graduate’s Mass attendance, desirable as that
practice is. Many other factors must also be considered, such as familial and
cultural experiences and attitudes, societal and peer influences, other
schooling, negative Church experiences and let’s never forget – divine grace. In
the end only the Lord can judge how well any one of us has lived up to the Faith
Along with Cardinal Spellman High, I am pleased and grateful that Judge
Sotomayor is “one of us.” And we all hope and pray that if appointed, her
decisions will reflect a true “concern for justice and respect for God’s
More from our