By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – In keeping with a 57-year tradition, on Oct. 20 Cardinal Justin Rigali celebrated the annual Red Mass for Philadelphia’s legal community at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

The Mass, of medieval origin, is by tradition celebrated at the start of the fall court term and calls upon the Holy Spirit to assist the jurists and lawyers as they perform their duties. Also, in keeping with tradition, a procession composed of members of the federal and state judiciary, in their robes of office, led by Pennsylvania’s Chief Justice Ronald Castille, preceded the Mass.

This year, in a departure from tradition, about 20 pro-life activists held protest signs outside the Cathedral, just as they would later in the evening in front of the Union League of Philadelphia where the St. Thomas More Society, Philadelphia’s Catholic legal organization, would hold its annual dinner.

The protesters were objecting to the society’s selection of Senator Robert Casey Jr. to receive its annual St. Thomas More Award. Cardinal Rigali did not attend the dinner nor did Casey attend the Mass.

In his homily (watch video/read text), the Cardinal told the jurists and lawyers that it is “particularly important that you who are guided by the light of faith and inspired by the truth to make use of your gifts to have an influence in a morally declining culture.”

“Just as Christians of old were steadfast and consistent in their proclamation of and witness to truth, so you, placed by God in the midst of the temporal order, can do so much to improve our society by promoting and protecting the most basic human right, the right to life,” he said.

Erroneous reports mostly circulated on the Internet implied the St. Thomas More Award would be given by the Cardinal at the Mass.

A clarifying statement issued by the Archdiocese said, “this award is not presented during the Red Mass or in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. The society’s award, which is not given by the Archdiocese, is presented at a dinner that is a separate and distinct event.”

A statement issued by Casey’s office said he “does not believe that the Red Mass should be used as a forum for politics or political protest. Apparently, some inspaniduals wish to use the Mass for that purpose in this election season. As a result, Senator Casey will not attend the Red Mass, but will accept the award at the St. Thomas More Society dinner.”

The protestors said they were outside the Cathedral because of what they perceived as Casey’s negative voting record on life issues and his support of presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama, an advocate of legal abortion.

“Mr. Casey has a Planned Parenthood approval rating of 65 percent, and is co-chair of Catholics for Obama, which is an oxymoron,” said John Stanton, former president of the Pro-Life Union of Southeastern Pennsylvania. “For a Catholic organization to honor such an inspanidual is outrageous.”

Francis Rafferty, a former Philadelphia city councilman and currentlya Democratic committeeman in South Philadelphia, joined the picketers.

“This is a reflection on the St. Tommy More Society,” he said. “We are not picketing the Cardinal, we are picketing Casey, who is supporting Obama.”

The St. Thomas More Dinner and award is a much more recent development than the Red Mass, according to Gerald St. John, a former president of the society. Last year’s recipient was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who is strongly pro-life, but other recipients have also drawn criticism for various reasons, he noted.

“We don’t apologize or back down,” St. John said. “Our list of award recipients is something like an honor roll of mentors for young lawyers.”

But the society was clearly taken off guard by the protests. “In deciding to present the award to Senator Casey,” the group said inin a news release, “the Society took note of his distinguished career in public service and his profound commitment to the Catholic faith as demonstrated by his pro-life voting record in the United States Senate, especially in connection with embryonic stem cell research.”

As for Casey’s support for Obama, Robert T. Miller, a Villanova law professor and vice president of the society, said the selection was made last December or January, before Obama emerged as the Democratic candidate for the presidency.

“We don’t endorse any political party. We recognize a prominent Catholic with a long record of service,” he said.

As a freshman senator, Casey has not compiled a definitive voting record on the life issues, and Miller points to the contradiction of his having a positive approval rating from both the National Abortion Rights Action League (65 percent) and from the National Right to Life Committee (57 percent).

In both cases some of the votes, Miller noted, did not pertain necessarily to abortion.

For example, he points to the votes considered by National Right to Life. Of his seven votes considered, Casey voted the pro-life endorsed position four times – on prohibition of abortion services in Native American health programs, banning funds for organizations that support coercive abortions, health care for unborn children and embryonic stem cell research.

Casey voted against the pro-life lobby’s position in favor of overturning the pro-life Mexico City policy, on Medicare prescription drug price controls and regulation of grass-roots lobbying groups.

But the last would regulate all grass-roots lobbying groups, including those that support abortion or are pro-life. It is not specifically pro-life or pro-abortion. If this vote was not considered in the count, Casey’s pro-life record would be even higher.

Such statistics would not convince the demonstrators.

“He has a 65 percent approval rating from NARAL and Planned Parenthood,” said Judith Neeld, director of Generation Life. “You can say you are pro-life but unless you vote pro-life it’s another story. To be pro-life you have to have a 100 percent approval rating.”