Justice Clarence Thomas credits Catholic nuns’ anti-racist example
by Kevin J. Jones
Denver Newsroom, Sep 18, 2021 / 16:41 pm
Catholic nuns and his grandparents’ example helped instill in Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas the belief that all people were children of God and that the racist flaws of American society were a betrayal of its best promises, he said in a lecture Thursday.
“My nuns and my grandparents lived out their sacred vocation in a time of stark racial animus, and did so with pride with dignity and with honor. May we find it within ourselves to emulate them,” Justice Thomas said at the University of Notre Dame Sept. 16.
“To this day I revere, admire and love my nuns. They were devout, courageous and principled women.”
Thomas, only the second Black Supreme Court justice, delivered the Tocqueville Lecture at the invitation of the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government, a new Notre Dame initiative that focuses on discussions and scholarship related to Catholicism and the common good.
“In my generation, one of the central aspects of our lives was religion and religious education,” he said. “The single biggest event in my early life was going to live with my grandparents in 1955.”
His grandfather was a “very devout” Catholic convert, while his grandmother was a Baptist. Thomas, then a second grader, was sent with his brother to St. Benedict the Moor Grammar School in Savannah, Georgia. He was not Catholic at the time, but would convert at a young age.
“Between my grandparents and my nuns, I was taught pedagogically and experientially to navigate through and survive the negativity of a segregated world without negating the good that there was or, as my grandfather frequently said, without ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water,’” the Supreme Court justice said.
“There was of course quotidian and pervasive segregation and race-based laws which were repulsive and at odds with the principles of our country,” he said, but there was also “a deep and abiding love for our country and a firm desire to have the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship regardless how society treated us.”
Said Thomas: “There was never any doubt that we were equally entitled to claim the promise of America as our birthright, and equally duty-bound to honor and defend her to the best of our ability. We held these ideals first and foremost because we were raised to know that, as children of God, we were inherently equal and equally responsible for our actions.”
Thomas spoke of his second grade teacher Sister Mary Dolorosa’s catechism lessons, during which she would ask the class why God had created them.
“In unison our class of about 40 kids would answer loudly, reciting the Baltimore Catechism: ‘God created me to know love and serve him in this life and to be happy with him in the next,’” he said.
“Through many years of school and extensive reading since then, I have yet to hear a better explanation of why we are here. It was the motivating truth of my childhood and remains a central truth today,” he said.
“Because I am a child of God there is no force on this earth that can make me any less than a man of equal dignity and equal worth,” he said. This truth was “repeatedly restated and echoed throughout the segregated world of my youth” and “reinforced our proper roles as equal citizens, not the perversely distorted and reduced role offered us by Jim Crow.”
Thomas questioned what he saw as a “reduced” image of Blacks today, deemed inferior by bigots or “considered a victim by the most educated elites.”
“Being dismissed as anything other than inherently equal is still, at bottom, a reduction of our human worth,” he said. “My nuns at Saint Benedict’s taught me that that was a lie. In God’s eyes, we were inherently equal.”
His grandparents also believed in equality before God. Because of that, “not only did we deserve to be treated equally, but we also were required to conduct ourselves as children of God. Hence, we were to live our lives according to his word. My grandparents repeatedly stressed that because of our fallen nature we had to earn our bread by the sweat of our brows.”
Thomas continued: “There was no room to doubt this and even less for self-pity. As they saw things, on judgment day we would be held accountable for the use of our God-given talents and our opportunities.”
Thomas became a Catholic seminarian and studied for a year at Conception Abbey Seminary in Missouri, but left after the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elsewhere, Thomas has said he was repelled to witness fellow seminarians make disparaging comments about King. That experience led to years of distance from Catholicism, and he only returned to the Catholic faith after becoming a Supreme Court justice.
He said he regretted that he ignored or rejected the lessons of his youth, including “not to act badly because others had acted badly.” For a time he saw this morality “as a sign of weakness or cowardice.” After King’s assassination, he said, “I lost faith in the teachings of my childhood and succumbed to an array of angry ideologies.”
“Indeed, that was why I left the seminary in May of 1968. I let others and my emotions persuade me that my country and my God had abandoned me. I became disoriented and disenchanted with my faith and my country and deeply embittered, and perhaps worst of all, I let my family down,” he said.
At the age of 19, his grandfather asked him to leave his house. He then became a student at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, where, he said, “I fell in quickly with radical ideologies such as Black Power. It was an era of disenchantment and deconstruction. The beliefs of my youth were subjected to the jaundiced eye of critical theories or, perhaps more accurately, cynical theories.”
His grandfather warned him that he had taken the wrong path, and Thomas later came to believe that “the theories of my young adulthood were destructive and self-defeating.”
“The wholesomeness of my childhood had been replaced with emptiness, cynicism and despair,” he said. “I was faced with a simple fact that there was no greater truth than what my nuns and my grandparents had taught me: We are all children of God and rightful heirs to our nation’s legacy of civic equality. We were duty-bound to live up to obligations of the full and equal citizenship to which we were entitled by birth.”
In April 1970 Thomas returned to his college campus from a riot early one morning. There, he said, “I stood outside the chapel at Holy Cross and asked God to take hate out of my heart.”
This was his background for his later encounters with the Declaration of Independence and the legacy of the founding of the United States. He praised the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration, which had been “beyond dispute” in the society, school and home of his youth,
“As I rediscovered the God-given principles of the Declaration and our Founding, I eventually returned to the Church which had been teaching the same truths for millennia,” he said, reflecting on American history and its fierce debates about slavery and racial equality.
While radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison depicted America as “a racist and irredeemable nation,” Thomas sided with those who “were unwilling to give up on the American project.”
“Equal citizenship was a black man’s birthright and to give up on America was to concede that America’s Blacks never were equal citizens as the Declaration of Independence had promised them,” he said. “To demoralize freedmen and slaves in that way, as Frederick Douglass argued, served only to increase the hopelessness of their bondage.”
Douglass, a former slave who became a famous American orator, aimed to convince Americans “that the country was unmoored but not lost.” Both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King similarly emphasized the promise of equality in America’s founding documents.
“While we have failed the Declaration time and again, and the ideals of the Declaration time and again, I know of no time when the ideals have failed us,” said Thomas.
“Ultimately, the Declaration endures because it articulates truth. … As Lincoln taught us, the Declaration reflects the noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to his creatures, and the enlightened belief that ‘nothing stamped with the divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on and degraded and imbruted by its fellows.'”
In his other comments, Thomas reflected on his friendship with the late justice Antonin Scalia and the possibility that despite their different backgrounds they both thought similarly because of their shared Catholic background, their shared formation in Catholic schools, and a “common culture.”
Thomas knew Supreme Court Justice Amy Barrett, a former Notre Dame law professor, from her time as a clerk for Scalia. “I pray that she has a long and fruitful tenure on the court,” he said of the newest justice.
The justice was introduced by Notre Dame student Maggie Garnett, whose mother was clerking for Justice Thomas while pregnant with her. Garnett said she claims to be “the first unborn Supreme Court clerk,” though she joked that Justice Thomas might not agree that that is a “faithful interpretation of the original meaning.”