Reviews | Why Amy Coney Barrett’s Religious Beliefs Aren’t Banned
I’m a Catholic scholar, I’ve written two books about the type of religious community that Barrett is a member of, and I don’t think it’s anti-Catholic to ask about Barrett’s religious beliefs. On the contrary, as the President approaches a decision on her potential appointment later this week, I am convinced that they must be at the forefront.
In particular, the Senate Judiciary Committee should be prepared to ask to review any covenant — a solemn contract binding before God — she signed upon becoming a full member of People of Praise. This will protect, not erode, the fundamental value of religious freedom in America.
Such a request for covenant review may seem unseemly to some. After all, the Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification for any public office or mission.” Catholics and scholars of Catholicism know how important this foundation of freedom is in the history of American Catholics; anti-Catholic fanaticism is an old and ugly story in the United States.
But it’s not about anti-Catholicism or even liberal bias against conservative Catholics. Barrett’s nomination would raise an important question New problem: is there a tension between being one of the final interpreters of the Constitution and being sworn to an organization that lacks transparency and visible authority structures that are accountable to their members , the Roman Catholic Church and the general public? ?
This is not a problem unique to people of praise. This is in fact a typical feature of several new charismatic groups that emerged in the late 1960s (after the Second Vatican Council), as a mixture of Catholic traditions and Protestant Pentecostalism. Anthropologists, sociologists and theologians have documented not only the spiritual vitality and witness of these communities, but also their closed and secretive nature.
Even more disturbing are the many first-person accounts of how some leaders and colleagues have eroded and even destroyed the spiritual and intellectual freedom of their members. Former members of covenant communities described top-down spiritual direction and control over members’ life decisions, including career choices and whom to marry. These reports are difficult to confirm; the lack of transparency of the groups means that it is almost impossible to know the rules which govern them, either because the founding documents are not accessible to the public (in some cases, not even to the authorities of the Church), or because that the most important rules are not written and transmitted orally from generation to generation, or a combination of these two cases.
The official position of the Catholic Church towards these new Catholic movements and communities is instructive. Six years ago, in an address to a global gathering of these new Catholic movements and communities, Pope Francis directly warned them against the temptation to “usurp the individual liberty” of their members.
If the Pope raises difficult questions about the compatibility in the Catholic Church of individual freedom and the charism of these communities, it would be entirely fair for the Senate to ask similar questions when considering the nomination to the Supreme Court of a person belonging to such a community.
Let’s be clear: this debate is also not about the “sectarian” aspects of People of Praise. Religious scholars know that deploying the “cult” label is often a way to dismiss disadvantaged religious spiritual groups. Not all experiments with new models of community life are suspect.
At the same time, not all concerns about these groups are unwarranted. Ironically, from a Catholic perspective, the two most pressing questions about people of worship may be the exact opposite of those raised so far in the discussion of Barrett’s potential nomination.
The first question from a Catholic perspective has to do with what Barrett really thinks about religion, political authority and constitutional interpretation. During Barrett’s 2017 confirmation hearing for her 7th Circuit seat, Senator Dianne Feinstein famously remarked that “dogma lives loudly inside you.” But the real question to ask the members of Catholic charismatic communities is not whether dogma drives them, it is whose dogma animates them.
The dogmatic dimension of the Catholic intellectual tradition is, literally, an open book – the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Its dogma not only binds its members, it also protects them. It guarantees believers freedom of conscience and safeguards the legitimate autonomy of the socio-political community. In contrast, the moral and intellectual commitments of these new Catholic communities often rest more on the idiosyncratic charismatic authority of the founder and leaders than on a solid commitment to the Catholic intellectual tradition.
The second issue concerns Barrett’s independence as a judge. Who did Barrett take a vow of obedience to? What is its nature and scope? What are the consequences of a violation? Groups like People of Praise are a new form of secular Christian living. The members of these communities are (and consider themselves to be) different from ordinary non-ordained Catholics, who do not take vows to obey their parish priests and bishops. But members of covenant communities generally make broad vows of obedience to community leaders.
Vows of obedience, of course, are nothing new in the Catholic Church. Nor are they the exclusive domain of conservative Catholics. Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans and lay Catholic members of “secular institutes” all take it. It is understandable that some people balk at having a member of a religious order or of Opus Dei sit on the Supreme Court. But at least in these communities, the vow of obedience or other commitment that such a person makes would be visible, formal and accountable. This is not the case with new Catholic charismatic communities, whose vows are often not public and whose leaders are not accountable under Church law.
Let’s leave aside questions of ideology and political perspective. The key point is this: the analogy drawn between members of new Catholic communities and other Catholics in public office is false. Amy Coney Barrett is not Catholic like John F. Kennedy was Catholic or Joe Biden or Paul Ryan or the late Antonin Scalia was Catholic. She made solemn promises that go far beyond the baptismal promises that any Catholic makes. Nor is Barrett like Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest who served for many years in the United States House of Representatives. His vows of obedience as a Jesuit were open and public.
The Catholic Church is learning to appreciate the good offered by new charismatic communities while combating their potential for abuse. In doing so, the Church trusts in the Holy Spirit to guide its discernment.
While the President and Senate cannot be expected to seek divine guidance, they can and should exercise caution and good judgment when selecting candidates for the highest court in the land. – and that includes reviewing any oaths and covenants they may have taken that could affect or supersede an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.