Court gesture: Justice Scalia.


















































































































The Hand of Justice

Whether Scalia flicked his fingers or flipped the bird, what would his CCD teacher say?

By John D. Spalding

It’s no secret that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has a temper and a mouth. But who among us expected this UPI headline on Monday: “Justice Scalia flips the finger in church”? Losing his cool on the highest bench, sure. But in church, just minutes after receiving communion? Not this man of faith!

On Sunday, Scalia attended a special mass for politicians and lawyers in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross. A reporter asked if he faces questions over impartiality when it comes to matters of church and state. "You know what I say to those people?" the 70-year-old Roman Catholic replied, and then flicked his hand under his chin. "That's Sicilian."

Calling the gesture “obscene” and Scalia’s conduct “unbecoming a 20-year veteran of the country’s highest court,” the conservative Boston Herald noted that the incident happened “just feet from the Mother Church’s altar.” A photographer from the Pilot, the Archdiocese of Boston's newspaper, caught the moment on film. "Don't publish that," Scalia told him. The Herald also found Scalia’s remark inappropriate, given that “one of his sworn duties is to uphold the freedom of the press.”

Then yesterday Scalia fired off an angry letter to the editor of the Boston Herald, maintaining that the gesture at the cathedral wasn’t “obscene” and accusing the newspaper's staff of watching "too many episodes of the Sopranos."

For some people, the question is whether the gesture is the same as giving the middle finger. I, however, am not interested in whether the “chin flick” means “buzz off” or “fuck off.” Frankly, they don’t seem all that different to me. No, my concerns are theological. Never mind “What Would Jesus Do?” Is it a sin to “flip the finger" in church?

And so last evening I called someone who would definitely know. Kelly, my friend Peter’s wife, is a devout lifelong Catholic, the mother of three girls and the dedicated teacher of a second-grade CCD class.

When I told Kelly I was calling with a theological question, she warned me that she’s by no means a theologian. “I just teach seven- and eight-year-old kids the church basics,” she said. “I’m preparing them for their first communion in May.”

“That’s perfect,” I assured her. “The church basics—that’s why I’m calling.”

Here’s how our conversation went.

Me: So, what are your students learning now?

Kelly: Well, in January they had their first reconciliation. So they had to confess all their sins to the priest. Well, whatever sins they may have committed by age seven or eight…

Me: What kinds of sins do they confess?

Kelly: Anything they’ve done that wasn’t kind. Like not listening to their mother, or hurting their brother or sister.

Me: Is name-calling a sin?

Kelly: Of course. It’s not very nice, is it?

Me: No, it’s not. What about flipping the finger in church? Is that a sin?

Kelly: [Pauses] What? The middle finger?

Me: Yes. Or, like Tony Soprano, flicking a hand under your chin?

Kelly: Well, it’s definitely a turning away from God, because it hurts someone’s feelings. It’s a venial sin. And it’s especially bad if it’s done…in a church!

Me: What would a priest say to a kid who did such a thing?

Kelly: Again, I’m not a priest, but he’d probably tell them it’s a bad thing to do. The church is all about love and kindness. God is love, and we are supposed to love. Flipping the… finger… isn’t loving!

Me: No…

Kelly: But then, if the child has confessed this, the priest would probably tell him he’s forgiven and instruct him not to do it again.

Me: But as you say, only if he’s confessed…

Kelly: Well, yes, of course… On the other hand, kids sometimes don’t know what they’re doing. They’re just copying what they’ve seen their father do, so it all depends…

Me: Right. But what if you’re not a child. What if you’re an adult, and you “flip the finger” in church?

Kelly: An adult!...Well, that’s even worse, because adults definitely know what they’re doing!

Me: OK. Now say you’re a Supreme Court Justice, and you “flip the finger” in church, just feet from the altar?

Kelly: [Long pause] Huh? …A judge?

Me: Thanks, Kelly. You’ve been a great help!


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John D. Spalding is the editor of His last piece was Superstition: The Faith We All Share.

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