The Beginnings of the Red Mass of Washington

Prompted by Marie Griffith’s post over at Religion and Politics, and spurred on by the happenstance of reading a related document while doing unrelated research the night before, I thought I’d take a look today at the history of the beginnings of the “Red Mass” in Washington, DC.  This mass, dedicated to the legal profession, originated in France in the 13th century but has been celebrated in the United States only since 1928.  The “red” refers to the color of the priests’ vestments, meant to invoke imagery of the flames of Pentecost. 

At that first Red Mass, held in New York’s St. Andrew’s Church under the auspices of the Catholic Lawyers’ Guild, Cardinal Patrick Hayes lauded the congregation, composed of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, for their “desire to spiritualize justice.”  Among the pews were U.S. District Attorney Charles Tuttle and at least 250 judges from various court jurisdictions. Cardinal Hayes took the image of Christ as “Great Advocate” for his theme, and wistfully lamented that the crucifix could not be displayed in U.S. courtrooms.  The Guild immediately decided to make the service an annual event.

In subsequent Red Masses at St. Andrews through the thirties, lawyers and judges would find their profession called on the carpet for failing to live up to proper ethical standards, as well as being insufficiently aggressive in banning obscene literature.  Reports of the masses almost always highlighted the ecumenical nature of the service, solidifying the notion of a Judeo-Christian ethic underpinning the nation’s legal system.

Similar services were inaugurated in the thirties in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and California, but it was not until January 8, 1939, that the first one was held in Washington, DC, at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at the Catholic University of America, to open the 76th Congres.  Representatives of the federal government put in a strong showing at this mass, including Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Supreme Court Justice Pierce Butler, and dozens more congressmen, diplomats, judges, and other officials.

The Washington Red Mass had little of the introspective direction of the earlier services; rather, it turned attention to an increasingly godless world. In his sermon, Cincinnati Archbishop John McNicholas focused on the war in Europe, saying that the “greatest menace to law in the world today is practical atheism.” And not only abroad, but here in the States: “The twentieth century dementia is atheistic…it is spreading in our country like a pestilence. It should be quarantined.”

By 1940, the Washington Red Mass drew 69 members of Congress, who heard John Francis O’Hara, Auxiliary Bishop of the Army and Navy Diocese, warn them that the laws they enact must be derived from God, lest the nation fall into materialist tyranny as in Russia.  These themes continued for many years after, and by 1943, the mass ended with the singing of the national anthem.  Vice President Henry Wallace had been making appearances by this time as well.

In her article, Griffith raises some very important concerns about the expectations many of our highest-ranking government officials seem to have about their presence at the Red Mass.  The themes of ideological warfare that filled the sermons of the thirties and forties have been modified to current culture war themes, but they still conflate the worldview of the Catholic hierarchy (distinct from that of the laity) with the worldview of the nation’s government.

So why would six members of the Supreme Court feel compelled to go to the mass this year?  Perhaps the element of tradition is important here; few organizations manage tradition as well as the Catholic Church, and from its beginning, the Red Mass in Washington was positioned as an event that straddled the sacred-secular boundary and transcended denominational differences.  This, bolstered by the fact that it is a mass explicitly said for the judges and lawmakers, creates an environment in which the justices seem to draw legitimacy through their attendance.

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