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Justice Clarence Thomas talks about how he returned to the Catholic Church

J-P Mauro - published on 09/22/21

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas praised Catholic teachings on race equality at a Notre Dame lecture.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently delivered a lecture at Notre Dame in which he talked about his Catholic faith and praised the anti-racist example set by Catholic nuns. The Tocqueville Lecture was held at Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, where he spoke to an audience of students, faculty, and locals. 

Thomas cited his grandparents and the nuns at his primary school as the people who most influenced his life. They accomplished this by “living out their sacred vocation in a time of stark racial animus,” a task he said they performed “with dignity and with honor.”

As reported by the Catholic Sentinel, Thomas said: 

“To this day I revere, admire and love my nuns. They were devout, courageous and principled women.”


The Associate Justice of the Supreme Court highlighted Catholic education as one of the “central aspects” of his youth. Thomas recalled his second grade catechism lessons with his teacher, Sister Mary Dolorosa. Sister Dolorosa would ask the class why they were created by God:

“In unison our class of about 40 kids would answer loudly, reciting the Baltimore Catechism: ‘God created me to know love and serve him in this life and to be happy with him in the next,’” he said.

Thomas went on to explain that over his adult life he has extensively studied this question. Through all his exploration, however, he said he has “yet to hear a better explanation of why we are here.”

This purpose behind creation, Thomas argued, places inherent and equal value on all human life. He noted, however, that Catholic teaching was in conflict with the segregated America of the mid-20th century. He mused: 

“Because I am a child of God there is no force on this earth that can make me any less than a man of equal dignity and equal worth,” he said. This truth was “repeatedly restated and echoed throughout the segregated world of my youth” and “reinforced our proper roles as equal citizens, not the perversely distorted and reduced role offered us by Jim Crow.”


Justice Thomas’ respect for Catholic teachings led him to the seminary to discern a vocation. This pursuit was cut short, however, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. He decided to leave after hearing derogatory remarks from fellow seminarians, and thereafter distanced himself from the Church. Thomas admitted that he had become “disoriented and disenchanted with his faith.”

In his young adulthood, Thomas left home to study at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. He said, “I fell in quickly with radical ideologies such as Black Power. It was an era of disenchantment and deconstruction. The beliefs of my youth were subjected to the jaundiced eye of critical theories or, perhaps more accurately, cynical theories.”

He said he later realized that the theories he followed at this point were “self-defeating.” Thomas explained that recognizing this was the first step back to the Church: 

“The wholesomeness of my childhood had been replaced with emptiness, cynicism and despair,” he said. “I was faced with a simple fact that there was no greater truth than what my nuns and my grandparents had taught me: We are all children of God and rightful heirs to our nation’s legacy of civic equality. We were duty-bound to live up to obligations of the full and equal citizenship to which we were entitled by birth.”

Studying the history of the United States, he said, eventually led him back to the Church.

The “self-evident” truths of the Declaration, he said, were “beyond dispute” in his own upbringing.

“As I rediscovered the God-given principles of the Declaration and our Founding, I eventually returned to the Church, which had been teaching the same truths for millennia,” he said.

Read the full account of Clarence Thomas’ lecture at Catholic Sentinel or watch the speech in the video above.

CatechismCatholicEducationNunsUnited States
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