supreme court

Are Amy Coney Barrett’s Religious Views Fair Game for Tough Questions?

Judge Barrett’s religion has been front-and-center throughout her career. Photo: Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame Law School/ShutterstockMATT CASHORE/UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE

Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee, Seventh Circuit judge Amy Coney Barrett, has a number of characteristics that recommended her to the president and his vetters: a solid conservative record both on the bench and in academia; relative youth (she’s 48, which means she’d have 39 years on the Court if she serves as long as the justice she will succeed if confirmed); the kind of big family (seven kids, two of them adopted) that humanizes a jurist and — for conservatives — separates Barrett from the professionally obsessed feminists they dislike.

But there’s no question her religious faith, as a practicing and apparently conservative Catholic, has been an asset for her as well. That is partially because midwestern Catholics like Barrett herself are a swing-voter target for both parties in a highly polarized general election. But more important is the fact that Barrett’s faith appears to guide her in a conservative direction on hot-button constitutional issues, particularly the endangered right to an abortion, which are all-important to elements of the Republican Party’s electoral base, including traditionalist Catholics but even more so to emphatically conservative Evangelicals.

It’s hard to overstate how improbable this situation would have seemed in the not-so-distant past. From its very founding the Republican Party was a bastion of mainline Protestantism that was forever flirting with or succumbing to anti-Catholic bigotry. And Evangelical Protestants, themselves largely Democrats or politically disengaged, regarded (as recently as the days of my own upbringing as a Southern Baptist) the Catholic Church with enormous suspicion, some echoing Luther’s description of the pope as the Antichrist and others referring to the whole Roman apparatus as the biblical Whore of Babylon. The Evangelical ministers who grilled John F. Kennedy in a famous Houston confrontation in 1960, questioning the compatibility of Catholicism with American liberties, would have been astounded to learn their successors would cheer an increasingly Catholic Supreme Court as the reward for all their political efforts.

A little-noted moment of supreme irony occurred during the last Supreme Court term when four Republican-appointed Catholic justices (and a fifth raised as a Catholic) declared state Blaine Amendments unconstitutional in a decision benefiting a conservative Evangelical school. These amendments — named after a longtime Republican congressman, secretary of State, and the GOP’s 1884 presidential nominee, James G. Blaine — banned use of public funds for religious schools; they were adopted wherever Republicans or militant Protestantism reigned; and were still in place in 37 states before Catholic Republican Supreme Court Justice John Roberts killed them with his opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.

The religious composition of today’s Court would have astonished Catholics and non-Catholics alike until quite recently. There were only two Catholic Supreme Court justices in the 19th century. In the 20th century the tradition developed of a single “Catholic seat” (later accompanied by a “Jewish seat”) on the Court, which was maintained until 1986. If Barrett is confirmed, she will be the 15th Catholic justice ever but the sixth Catholic on the current Court (a seventh, Neil Gorsuch, was raised and educated as a Catholic).

Now as it happens, U.S. Catholics as a whole do not differ much from Americans as a whole on the hot-button issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights that occasionally confront the Supreme Court; white Evangelicals are far and away the most fervent opponents of legalized abortion and marriage equality. But there are a number of reasons Judge Barrett’s supporters and opponents alike assume she views abortion as deeply immoral and its legalization as a preventible — or reversible — tragedy.

It’s actually hard to separate the religious and jurisprudential reasons for this presumption. Barrett is an unquestionably observant Catholic who spent years teaching at a Catholic law school, and has written gravely about the dilemma Catholic judges face in dealing with cases where the Church has a clear and compelling teaching (though the example she and her co-author gave involved death penalty cases). She signed an open letter affirming support for traditional Church teachings on abortion, marriage, and gender roles to the 2015 Synod on the Family at the Vatican. Some contemporaries describe her role in a movement at Notre Dame Law School (where she was a student and later a faculty member) to raise a new generation of religiously motivated conservative jurists.

At the same time, Barrett is a member of the Federalist Society (for many years led by Trump’s chief adviser on judicial appointments, Leonard Leo), where it is difficult to find anyone who doesn’t consider Roe v. Wade as an abomination or the very idea of constitutionally protected reproductive rights as the epitome of judicial overreach. She clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative Catholic apostle of constitutional “originalism” who never accepted the legitimacy of Roe. In her case, where do the religious motives end and the secular motives begin, or is it all a seamless web?

The possibility that she is unusually and inflexibly influenced by her faith was aired during the now-famous 2018 confirmation hearings the Senate Judiciary Committee held after Trump appointed her to the Seventh Circuit, when after exploring her writings on the religious obligations of Catholic judges, Dianne Feinstein clumsily said: “The dogma lives loudly within you.” This incident has become the foundation for a hundred conservative opinion columns past, present, and future claiming Democrats are anti-Catholic bigots who are unfairly maligning Barrett’s religion. In truth, Feinstein was challenging Barrett’s alleged equanimity about reproductive rights, which the putative judge is, of course, like all Trump judicial nominees, professing with her fingers crossed. If Barrett actually is open to a constitutional right to choose, it will come as a rude and infuriating shock to those supporters of her confirmation who are accusing Democrats of anti-Catholic bias in questioning her.

If the intersection of religion and the Supreme Court confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett was as simple as the inevitable collision of plain old traditionalist Catholicism with the idea of women having reproductive rights, the Senate and the country might just replay the Kavanaugh hearings minus the Christine Ford Blasey allegations. But her faith is a bit more complicated, as Religion News Service explains:

[Barrett] is receiving scrutiny because she is part of the charismatic renewal movement within the Catholic Church and participates in a “covenant community” called People of Praise. … These are charismatic Catholics who see themselves as part of the historic Azusa Street Revival of 1906, when they believe the Holy Spirit showered thousands of Christians with supernatural gifts that had been held by Jesus’ apostles, such as the ability to heal, prophesy and speak in tongues.

The movement spread to the Catholic Church in 1967, when professors at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh held a retreat at which several people were baptized in the Spirit — that is, they believe they received those same gifts of the Holy Spirit. After that retreat, prayer groups began forming across the country, and the charismatic renewal movement within the Catholic Church took off.

It sure did, most recently thanks to the active encouragement of Pope Francis. But typically, the sort of ecstatic spiritual practices that characterize charismatic Catholics (their Protestant counterparts are usually known as Pentecostals) are expressed in small, less public gatherings, not in your local parish mass. And that’s where networks like the South Bend–based ecumenical People of Praise come in.

Some inquiring minds are concerned about the “covenants” members of People of Praise are expected to subscribe to after a period of “discernment,” as Catholic historian Massimo Faglioli explains:

Barrett’s nomination would raise an important new problem: Is there a tension between forthrightly serving as one of the final interpreters of the Constitution and swearing an oath to an organization that lacks transparency and visible structures of authority that are accountable to their members, to the Roman Catholic Church and to the wider public?

This is not a problem unique to the People of Praise. It is actually a typical feature of several new charismatic groups that arose in the late 1960s (after the Second Vatican Council), as a blend of Catholic traditions and Protestant Pentecostalism. Anthropologists, sociologists and theologians have documented not only the spiritual vitality and witness of such communities, but also their closed and secretive nature.

There have been some reports — hotly disputed by Barrett allies — that the People of Praise have insisted upon patriarchal subordination of women and interferes with the personal liberty of members. The one thing that is clear is that in the unbelievably white-hot glare of a Supreme Court confirmation fight — particularly one with this fight’s perceived consequences — Barrett’s involvement with the People of Praise is going to attract attention and scrutiny like a magnet attracts iron shavings. And the potential for confusion and prevarication is great, since a deeply divided U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is hardly an ideal venue for theological and ecclesiastical inquiries.

Standard questions about Barrett’s religious commitments — to her Church or to her “convenanted” charismatic group — and their impact on her legal thinking and concept of her own role in the judiciary are natural and indeed all but obligatory, and shouldn’t arouse any serious complaints about “anti-Catholicism,” though some Republicans will raise that charge metronomically no matter what Democrats do.

But Barrett’s inquisitors really need to educate themselves before launching themselves and the television viewing public down obscure rabbit holes chasing shadowy groups with complicated histories and allegiances. One decision they may face is whether the “charismatic spiritual gifts” the putative Justice presumably shares are in any way relevant. The People of Praise website affirms that “[l]ike hundreds of millions of other Christians in the Pentecostal movement, People of Praise members have experienced the blessing of baptism in the Holy Spirit and the charismatic gifts as described in the New Testament,” which is a reference to St. Paul’s discussion of such powers as miracle-working, prophecy, and the speaking and discernment of diverse “tongues.”

Those sorts of practices may seem alien to many non-charismatic Christians, not to mention those of non-Christian faiths and purely secular folk. But disparaging them may not only offend charismatic Catholics and pentecostal Protestants generally, but could create a particular if unlikely bond between Barrett and some Hispanic voters. According to a 2007 Pew survey, nearly three of ten Latino Christians say they “speak in tongues at least weekly.” Trump’s mouthpieces would just love to say that Democrats aren’t simply anti-Catholic apologists for baby-killing, but are anti-Latino and anti-Holy Spirit.

Are Barrett’s Religious Views Fair Game for Tough Questions?