In the 1950s, Xavier High School was a home for the discipline of God and man, where military training was a compulsory part of the curriculum, and students proved their rigor by poring over the Bible and Latin texts.
Coming to class with the wrong haircut could result in “jug”—punishment, from the Latin “jugum,” or “burden,” sometimes thought of as the abbreviation for Justice Under God.
This Xavier experience greatly influenced Antonin Scalia, a sharp teenager from Queens who graduated in 1953.
The context of his textualism
As the partisan debate over replacing Supreme Court Justice Scalia shows no signs of abating, many have turned to the justice’s jurist’s own strict textualism to claim that Scalia himself would have had no patience for the argument that Article 2 of the Constitution no longer applied to a president in his final year in office.
This faith in original sources and love of the discipline inherent in fully investigating them is deeply rooted in Scalia’s eight years of Jesuit education, at Xavier and later at Georgetown University.
Xavier opened its doors as a college in 1847, and became a high school in the early 20th century, run by members of the Jesuit order, known for their scholasticism and military focus.
In the pre-Vatican II 1950s, when Scalia attended the school, religious instruction was focused on the catechism—memorizing what the church teaches as opposed to why. This catechistic teaching was paired with an “academic analysis” of biblical texts, remembers Philip Lacovara, who graduated from Xavier after Scalia but met him later in Washington, D.C. Lacovara had a distinguished career in his own right, as special counsel to the prosecution during the Watergate trial. He successfully argued the Supreme Court case that forced Richard Nixon to turn over the White House tapes.
In their Xavier education, the focus was on what was being said and what the author meant: students learned “to be faithful to the text that was being studied as the operative document.”
Scalia thrived in this academic atmosphere, but years later he would say that his fondest memories of the school came from the Regiment, the school military unit which was compulsory for students at the time. Scalia was the commanding officer of the Regiment’s marching band, and a member of the JV rifle team, requiring him to carry the weapon on the subway with him from time to time, between school and home in Elmhurst, Queens.
But shifting political currents during the Vietnam era convinced Xavier to make membership with the JROTC group optional, a decision with which Scalia deeply and publicly disagreed.
In a speech at the Xavier Regiment honors ceremony in 2011, Scalia identified a biblical basis for the benefits of military service: Jesus’ “advice to [the Roman soldiers] was not ‘Throw down your arms,’ but be content with your wages,” admonitions that fit in the deep military traditions of the Jesuits.
But Jesuits from Daniel Berrigan—-the counter culture priest–to Pope Francis have tapped into their customs of questioning and probing to pushed for peace. The “Plowshares Movement” that Berrigan was a part of took a different textual approach, adopting the biblical admonition that swords be beaten into farming tools.
‘Faith can grow through doubt’
Xavier and its alumni have tracked the changing fortunes of Catholics in New York City, a route that Scalia himself outlined in his 2011 address.
When the nativist American Protective Association proposed barring Catholics from office or armed forces command posts in the 1890s, Xavier began holding military masses to underscore its simultaneous commitment to service and religion—officers at the front pews, swords unsheathed.
The Xavier regiment became a mainstay at St. Patrick’s Day parades, but also more traditionally American events, such as the 1932 march honoring the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth. During WWII, 1,500 Xavier men served in the armed forces, that gradual assimilator.
Soon a Catholic would become president, and the rest is history. Scalia’s ascension to the highest court—as a second-generation Italian-American kid from Queens—underscored arrival at mainstream acceptance.
Surely Scalia would hope his successor would approach the world as he did, through reference to unchanging founding documents, carefully examined and extrapolated, a technique the justice was already learning at Xavier.
“Xavier and Jesuit education writ large,” says the school’s current president, Jack Raslowsky, “has always prided itself on teaching kids how to think, not what to think.”
“Faith can grow through doubt.”
Republicans in Congress, take note.
This is amExpress, the conversation starter for New Yorkers. Did someone forward you this email? Subscribe at amny.com/amexpress.