On Catholicism and the Court

A recent video has been making the rounds among Wisconsin Catholics, and American Catholics more generally, in the run-up to the November 3rd presidential election. The video features a Father James Altman of La Crosse, Wisconsin, and is entitled “You cannot be a Catholic and a Democrat. Period.” Among other things, Altman declares that U.S. politicians and the American educational system are “godless” (I don’t have too many qualms with him there), that “politics should fundamentally be a moral enterprise” and therefore the Church must address politics (agreed), that Father James Martin is a “hyper-confusion-spreading heretic” who “prances,” that the Democrats’ 2020 platform is “godless” and “against everything the Catholic Church teaches” (at least they had a platform!), that any Catholic who votes for a Democrat will “face the fires of Hell,” that “there will be sixty million…aborted babies standing at the gates of Heaven barring your Democrat entrance and nothing you can say will ever excuse you for your direct or indirect support for that diabolical agenda,” that “zero” Catholics voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, only “pretenders” and “imposters,” and that Planned Parenthood is “the most racist organization on the face of this planet, founded to wipe out black babies.”

By damning those who “indirectly” support abortion by voting for Democrats (a vote they may cast for any number of reasons), Altman is taking the “Little Eichmanns” view of moral culpability. Altman also praises President Trump’s views of “national sovereignty and national borders,” describing the president as “the one best pro-life president” and noting that he has a “Catholic wife.” Climate change is a “hoax.” He opposes DACA (which offers support to “criminal illegal aliens”) and calls the Southern Poverty Law Center “one of the most godless Communist anti-American left-wing organizations in the United States.”

I encourage you to watch the video in its entirety:

This video has gone viral in the context of both the upcoming presidential election and President Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, who is popular among conservative Catholics, to the United States Supreme Court. My views on the Supreme Court are pretty much what you’d expect from a left-winger. I view the SCOTUS, like the U.S. Senate, as a fundamentally undemocratic, conservative institution that historically serves to consolidate power among those who already have it. The progressive mid-twentieth-century Warren Court that upheld the constitutionality of Civil Rights legislation was largely a blip, a bug in a program whose features are overwhelmingly and reactionarily conservative. For this reason, I’m not especially troubled by the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett or the prospective of a 6-3 conservative majority. Without major reform, the SCOTUS is always going to be a force for conservatism within American political culture, both because the Court itself is structurally conservative and because members of the judiciary are, as a group, tempermentally conservative. (There’s a reason even liberal law professors are telling us not to worry about Amy Coney Barrett.) More interesting to me are critiques of Barrett that center on her Catholic faith and her involvement in the group called People of Praise. Republicans, eager to accuse Democrats of anti-Catholic bigotry, have jumped on criticisms of Barrett’s faith as evidence that Christian principles are a road-too-far among today’s far-left liberals. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein seemed to make the Republican case back in 2017 when she stupidly said to Barrett, “The dogma lives loud within you.”

I, for one, wish the dogma lived a bit more loudly in Barrett and in Altman.

For my money, the best take on Barrett’s nomination appeared in The Nation under the title “Amy Coney Barrett Is an Extremist—Just Not the Kind You Think.” In that essay, Elie Mystal notes Barrett’s extraordinary views on the death penalty—that Catholic judges should recuse themselves from cases involving the death penalty—and then explains the utter hypocrisy with which Barrett approaches nearly other political issue on which the Church might have a stance. Mystal writes:

You can see Barrett’s moral hypocrisy all throughout her judicial opinions. No modern church favors deliberate indifference to human life. Amy Coney Barrett does. In 2019, she dissented from a Seventh Circuit opinion that found that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment protected people in prison from correctional officers’ firing “warning shots” into a cafeteria. Barrett callously wrote:,“The guards may have acted with deliberate indifference to inmate safety by firing warning shots into the ceiling of a crowded cafeteria in the wake of the disturbance.… In the context of prison discipline, however, ‘deliberate indifference’ is not enough.”

Moreover, there’s no “Catholic” right to bear arms. If you believe the stories, Jesus famously told his followers to put down their weapons. But Barrett finds no conflict between that teaching and an expansive view of gun rights. She dissented from a 2019 case where the majority ruled that Wisconsin could disarm felons. Barrett found that “virtue-based restrictions” could not be applied to gun rights.

In 2020, again in dissent, Barrett was the lone voice in favor of the Trump administration’s policy of denying entry to immigrants who may in the future require public assistance. She alone thought it was lawful for the Trump administration to apply the “public charge” rule to deny green cards to such people. I am reminded of Jesus’s famous sermon where he says, “Thou shalt turn away any neighbor who may solicit an EBT card to pay for her bread.”

That is Barrett’s record. Her religion is not the source of that record; it is the shield she uses to blind people to the political extremism it contains.

Nobody should care that Barrett is Catholic, or “very” Catholic, or “super” Catholic. But people should absolutely care that the woman has herself said that she might and should recuse herself from cases involving one conflict between the laws and her church but hasn’t recused herself from cases involving others—and seems unlikely to once she gets to the Supreme Court.

The point of Mystal’s article (which I encourage you to read in full), and my point in this blog post, is that the problem with Barrett (or Altman, for that matter) is not dogmatic Catholicism. It’s doctrinaire conservatism. The problem isn’t that Barrett recognizes the moral authority of the Bishop of Rome. The problem is that she seems to recognize the moral authority of the Bishop of Rome on one or two narrow issues (abortion being the most prominent); on nearly every issue, she sides with the Church of Ronald Reagan or (increasingly) Donald Trump.

As an Orthodox Christian, I would personally feel quite comfortable standing before a judge who brought the full weight of Catholic teaching to bear on their moral philosophy and who permitted their moral philosophy to inform their rulings. If I ever found myself in legal trouble, I would welcome the opportunity to stand before such a judge! As Barrett wrote regarding the death penalty, “Although the legal system has a solution for this dilemma by allowing the recusal of judges whose convictions keep them from doing their job, Catholic judges will want to sit whenever possible without acting immorally.” I agree. A Catholic judge cannot let their faith and moral convictions constantly force them to recuse themselves, and I’d rather not live in a version of the United States where Catholics simply refrained from participating in the judiciary altogether. At some point, if one is religious, religious moral teaching will inform one’s politics. On that Altman and I are in perfect agreement.

But don’t show me a Catholic judge in whom the dogma lives loudly whenever dogma coincides with Republican social politics, but in whom the dogma is silent on all other aspects of Catholic teaching—especially those aspects of Catholic teaching that (contra Altman) coincide with Democratic social politics—and then tell me that my objection to such a judge is based on her Catholicism. The fact that the majority of Catholics in America are either socially conservative and “pro-life” or socially liberal and “pro-choice,” that so few Catholics are socially liberal and anti-abortion, indicates to me that the majority of Catholics have, like the majority of Americans, simply taken sides in our Cultural Civil War. Amy Coney Barrett seems to be no exception. So don’t tell me it’s her Catholicism I object to; it’s her apparent lack of it that bothers me.

I’ll concede, there’s something troubling about people who observe that Catholics represent two-thirds of the Supreme Court but only twenty-percent of the U.S. population. People who insist too much on even representation between the population and political institutions frequently have bigoted tropes in their back pocket; consider those people who gripe about the overrepresentation of Jewish people in certain industries. We should guard against anti-Catholicism, which is very real and has a very real legacy in the United States. Further, I believe Amy Coney Barrett has every right to live and to judge as a doctrinaire conservative. She is, after all, a nominee of the ultra-right Donald Trump, whose politics to me have always sniffed of fascism. And so I’ll bemoan her appointment to the court because Barrett and I are on opposite sides of the American political divide. But don’t tell me that, when I object to Barrett’s doctrinaire conservatism, that it’s actually her dogmatic Catholicism that I hate. I don’t hate dogmatic Catholicism—I think the world could use more Christian virtue, not less.

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