Centessimus Annus ¶ 44, the Four Marks of the Church, and the Four Marks of the U.S. Constitution

I recently had occasion to revisit a blog post I wrote in April 2020 about the evaluation of separation of powers in Catholic social teaching: Centessimus Annus ¶ 44 and the U.S. Constitution. In it, I presented a multiple-choice question:

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Four key commitments of the Constitution of the United States of America are (1) popular sovereignty, (2) writtenness, (3) federalism, and (4) separation of powers. Which, if any, of these key commitments of American constitutionalism does Catholic Social Teaching endorse as an essential aspect of a sound theory of the State?

A. Popular Sovereignty

B. Writtenness

C. Federalism

D. Separation of Powers

E. All four.

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The point of the question, then, was to introduce the endorsement of separation of powers by Centessimus Annus. My purpose, now, is to suggest that what I called the “four key commitments of the Constitution of the United States of America” might be understood by analogy to the four marks of the Church. This can only be an analogy because there are important differences with the similarities. But the idea of “marks of the Church” is that these “four characteristics, inseparably linked with each other, indicate essential features of the Church and her mission.” CCC no. 811. By analogy, we might say that the four characteristics of popular sovereignty, writtenness, federalism, and separation of powers are four characteristics that indicate essential features of the government of the United States under the Constitution.

A great dissimilarity in this analogy is that the Church has a divine source that the government of the United States under the Constitution does not have. “The Church does not possess [the characteristics of one, holy, catholic, and apostolic] of herself; it is Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, makes his Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, and it is he who calls her to realize each of these qualities.” CCC no. 811. Related to this, “[o]nly faith can recognize that the Church possess these properties from her divine source.” CCC no. 812. At the same time, there lies a similarity in that both the marks of the Church and the marks of the U.S. government under the Constitution have “historical manifestations [that] are signs that also speak clearly to human reason.” CCC no. 812.

adjudication-related considerations in Sheetz v. El Dorado

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Sheetz v. El Dorado County (2024) features a unanimous opinion for the Court by Justice Barrett and separate concurring opinions by three other Justices (Sotomayor joined by Jackson; Gorsuch solo; and Kavanaugh joined by Kagan and Jackson). These separate opinions address themselves in different ways to the narrow scope of what was decided in the opinion for the Court.

The question presented was whether conditions imposed on building permits are exempt from regulatory takings scrutiny because they are imposed pursuant to legislation rather than administratively. The Court answers this question “no.”

Sotomayor (joined by Jackson) wrote separately to note that there is an antecedent question, one not addressed by the Court, which is “whether the permit condition would be a compensable taking if imposed outside the permitting context.”

Gorsuch wrote separately both to note that the Court’s opinion did not address another question and also to suggest that this question had an easy answer. This was the question “whether the Nollan/Dolan test [i.e. the test that governs the Takings Clause inquiry in this context] operates differently when an alleged taking affects a ‘class of properties’ rather than ‘a particular development.’” The easy answer to this question, implied Gorsuch, was “no.”

If this question was so easy, why didn’t the Court address it? It appears that at least three Justices have a different view than Gorsuch. Kavanaugh (joined by Kagan and Jackson) concurred “to underscore that the Court has not previously decided—and today explicitly declines to decide—whether ‘a permit condition imposed on a class of properties must be tailored with the same degree of specificity as a permit condition that targets a particular development.’” The reason to underscore the limited nature of the Court’s decision, presumably, is to prevent others from reading that opinion to have resolved the issue.

From this brief description of the scope of the opinions, the question naturally arises how the Court decided to calibrate the breadth or narrowness of this opinion. The answer to this question is not something that one tries to answer as a matter of constitutional interpretation. The answer turns instead on the nature of the judicial function within the particular place in the judicial hierarchy occupied by the Supreme Court of the United States, together with a justice’s understanding of how best to carry out that function as a single individual on a multimember appellate court with jurisdiction that is both limited and discretionary. To the extent that these kinds of understanding are informed by a distinctive theory, that would be a theory of adjudication rather than a theory of interpretation or law.

Pope Francis’s Remarks to International Federation of Catholic Universities

On January 19, 2024, Pope Francis was scheduled to deliver “a lengthy address” to the International Federation of Catholic Universities. Because he was a “bit short of breath,” he instead got right to the point of what he was going to say and then let his prepared text speak for itself. Here’s what he said viva voce:

I was planning to deliver a lengthy address, but I am a bit short of breath; as you can see, this cold is not going away! I am giving you the text so that you can read it for yourselves. I thank all of you for this meeting and for all the good that our Catholic universities do by communicating knowledge, the word of God and an authentic humanism. Never tire of persevering in the splendid mission of Catholic universities. It is not their confessional status that gives them their identity: that is one aspect, but not the only one. It is perhaps that clear humanism which makes people realize that human beings have values and that these need to be respected. This is perhaps the finest and greatest thing about your universities. Thank you very much.