Judge Amy Coney Barrett is nominated to the US Supreme Court by President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC on September 26, 2020. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Democrats are right to raise questions about Amy Coney Barrett

Will the Supreme Court’s new justice be able to commit to American secularism?

In a move that has been predicted for some days, Amy Coney Barrett, a federal appellate judge and Notre Dame University law professor, has been chosen by Donald Trump to be the new Supreme Court justice, replacing the legendary and liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Barrett is, unsurprisingly, a conservative and if appointed would – at 48 years old – skew the balance of the court for a very long time to come.

It’s controversial because precedent and decorum would suggest that a sitting President should wait until the November election for such an appointment, but the choice itself is hardly surprising – Presidents invariably appoint judges who agree with them, whether Republican or Democrat. What is more provocative is Barrett’s Roman Catholic religion and her interpretation of it.

Will Barrett be able to commit to the American ideal of separation between church and state?

A former clerk to the late Justice Antonin Scalia – a Supreme Court judge who was a champion of the conservative movement and also a devoted Catholic – Barrett is a member of a charismatic Catholic movement known as the People of Praise. The charismatic movement exists within most Christian denominations and traces its roots to what is known as the Azusa Street Revival in early twentieth-century California. This developed into the Pentecostal movement and emphasised the gifts of the Holy Spirit such as divine healing, glossolalia (speaking in tongues), and an intimate and dramatic experience of the presence of God. It stresses emotion above liturgy or ritual, and arguably possesses a certain suspicion of the intellect.

Charismatic Catholicism came about much later, in the late 1960s, and is a minority movement within the church. But successive Popes have given their support, albeit sometimes qualified, and while Charismatics might not feel enormously comfortable at, for example, Brompton Oratory – and the Oratorians, bless their hearts would likely feel equally uneasy – they’re generally orthodox and faithful.

In the case of Barrett’s particular community, various criticisms have been made by former members and various Catholic commentators. They claim that the People of Praise is far too controlling over its members, makes important decisions for them, and that married women who are part of the group are taught to regard their husbands as being their “heads.” Barrett’s husband is a member too, as is her father. A 2007 edition of a People of Praise magazine featured an article about a group of women within the community known as “single for the Lord” who lived together and allowed a “head of the sisterhood” to decide how their collective income would be spent.

All this has led critics to wonder if Supreme Court Justice Barrett would make her own independent decisions or be influenced by those around her. It is not an unreasonable concern, but at the same time nobody doubts this highly experienced woman’s credentials. Her rulings may have been conservative, but they were also legally sound. Whether Barrett came to such conclusions of her own autonomy is, of course, impossible to know, but a more significant point is whether Barrett can commit to the American ideal of separation between church and state, and consequently judge as a lawyer rather than as a Catholic. These are questions which will doubtless be asked of her in the coming weeks.

For those who describe themselves as pro-life, abortion isn’t ‘an’ issue but ‘the’ issue

While such doubt may seem offensive and patronizing, it is nevertheless deeply necessary. President Kennedy dealt with anti-Catholic sentiment 60 years ago, but got off relatively lightly due to the fact that his Catholicism was more cultural than it was devout. This was also before the Christian right had entrenched itself in American politics. Joe Biden is a Catholic, and the Democrats have traditionally been the party of US Catholics, but on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, assisted dying, and insurance-funded contraceptives – all of which the Supreme Court will face – liberal Catholics think one way and conservative Catholics another. So, when Amy Coney Barrett is grilled about her religious views it will be less about the fact that she is a Catholic – charismatic or otherwise – than because she openly embraces a more orthodox Catholic doctrine.

This is an entirely justifiable challenge because in the case of abortion – undoubtedly the most divisive of all these debates – it would be unreasonable to ask someone who believed that abortion is unlawful killing – even murder – to set aside their beliefs as soon as they entered the chambers of the Supreme Court.

For those who describe themselves as pro-life, abortion isn’t “an” issue but “the” issue. It’s possible, I suppose, that Barrett has ruled in the past and will rule in the future on this issue and other policies without the influence of her religion, but I can’t see how. Such judgements would demand a compromise with what is the most central tenet in her life.

The right will complain of bigotry and old-style anti-Catholic sentiment, the left will quote progressive Catholics and claim hypocrisy on the part of those who oppose abortion but simultaneously support gun ownership, the death penalty, and punitive polices towards refugees. It will obscure a greater truth and make it increasingly difficult to come to a workable solution. That, alas, is becoming ever more typical of political disagreement, especially in the US, and there’s no sign of immediate change. Ain’t nothing charismatic about that.

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