By: Paul Murano – April, 21016
As the debate heats up about whether President Obama has a right to replace late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia before his term ends in January, it is important to consider where the ideological divide lies on how to interpret the Constitution. It is no coincidence that this disagreement parallels the same debate on how to interpret the Bible.
In both cases, people choose one of three basic ways to interpret the written word from a bygone era. As regards the Constitution, these methods are commonly Cheap inflatable water slides known as constructionalism, originalism, and seeing the Constitution as a living-breathing document. These parallel the three interpretive modalities of Sacred Scripture: fundamentalism, originalism, and modernism. Let’s look at what these terms mean, and why different people tend to lean toward one mode of interpretation.
The two extremes of scriptural and constitutional interpretation, fundamentalism and modernism, are flip sides of each other. They are the same but opposite in that they insist on interpreting the text with a 21st century (or current) cultural mindset – without taking into consideration the original intent of the author. They are different in that fundamentalism (or constructionalism for the Constitution) “updates” the words to mean what they mean literally in our language today, while modernism does the same “updating” with the meaning of the words to fit preconceived notions of what is ‘acceptable’ today. This is why fundamentalists cling to a literal interpretation of the creation story while modernists reject Jesus’ miracles as mythical fiction. With this foundational error – that the text and meaning must conform to current cultural standards – both of these interpretive options are fatally flawed.
The third, or middle concept, originalism, on the other hand seeks to understand the meaning of the text from the perspective of the original authors. It does this through textual, cultural, and historical scholarship. Originalists understand that neither the Bible nor of the Constitution were meant to be translated through the filter of contemporary western cultural standards.
On interpretation of the Bible, the Catholic Church has always rejected both fundamentalism and modernism. On interpretation of the Constitution, prominent Catholic judges like Scalia, Alito, and Thomas, have also rejected constructionalism and modernism. Why is this? What is it about the Catholic world view that leads to accepting originalism as the only way to interpret older texts while the rest of the world fights between the false extremes of fundamentalism and modernism? Let us go beneath the surface to discern this phenomenon.
First, originalism presumes there are essential truths to the identity of a thing – truths we cannot change. Second, it is the responsibility, therefore, of contemporary culture to conform to these truths rather than these truths conform to contemporary culture. Those who believe in fundamentalist or modernist interpretations of the Constitution or the Bible implicitly believe reality must conform to them, not them to reality. As essential truths of our nation can be found in the original meaning conveyed by the framers of the Constitution, so too are essential truths about life found in the original meaning conveyed through the sacred authors of the Bible. A fundamentalist or modernist approach to either does violence to the text.
Therefore, since only originalist judges respect the nation’s essential identity and can ensure its organic union and growth into the future, and since leftists like President Obama and half the current Supreme Court do not understand this, it is imperative for the sake of the nation that the next president choose Justice Scalia’s replacement.