Local Politics versus Catholic Teaching: the Case of Amy Coney Barrett

Matthew Sitman has an article in today’s Commonweal that echoes several of the points I tried to make yesterday in my post about Amy Coney Barrett. The piece is entitled “The Faith of Amy Coney Barrett,” and I encourage you to read it in full. Like me, Sitman is concerned that the rhetoric around the Barrett nomination misconstrues the degree to which conservative Catholicism is at the center of her worldview. In reality, Barrett and her legal career represent a strong fidelity to radical Republicanism, not to Catholicism, conservative or otherwise. Sitman’s account begins with a useful overview of all the obfuscation and bad faith arguments circulating in American right-wing media about the possibility that Democrats will use Barrett’s faith against her. (As a Facebook friend pointed out, imagine if Barrett belonged to a conservative Islamic group whose teachings resembled the People of Praise’s; can we imagine Republicans would consider her faith off-limits then? But I digress….)

Sitman writes:

It’s unlikely that Senate Democrats can stop Barrett from being confirmed, though there are reports of a memo circulating on Capitol Hill that details the extraordinary measures at their disposal. That they are being considered at all is a reminder that Barrett’s acceptance of the nomination under these circumstances is itself evidence that she’s unfit for a position of such vast responsibility. A more conscientious candidate would refuse to be installed on the Supreme Court through a farcical, truncated process just weeks before an election—an election the president who nominated her is openly proclaiming his intention to abscond with, in part, through litigation that she could be called on to resolve. That Barrett hasn’t done this is further confirmation of her partisan loyalties that at least stretch back to the work she did for the Republican legal team in Bush v. Gore. She seems to be a willing participant in the GOP’s strategy of minority rule.

But should the Senate move quickly on her nomination, the hearings that follow can still be used to dramatize the possibility that Barrett—and Trump—will strip millions of people of affordable healthcare during a pandemic. And not just that. Barrett has taken many unsettling positions that deserve attention. It turns out that there’s no need to investigate the inner workings of the People of Praise to discover what she really believes. Contrary to the impression many have of Barrett, what is most striking about her record is not the looming specter of theocracy, but her enduring opposition to what many Christians believe justice and mercy demand, presented under the aspect of originalism—an ersatz catechism, written in the pages of her judicial opinions, that fuses the political aims of the religious right with the constitutional theories of the late Antonin Scalia.

In addition to her skepticism of the Affordable Care Act, Barrett has been rightly characterized as having a “years’ long record of ruling against immigrants.” In a forty-page dissent from the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in Cook County v. Wolf, she backed the Trump administration’s policy of imposing what Vox’s Nicole Narea calls a strict “wealth test” on immigrants applying to enter or stay in the United States. The draconian rules were designed to let officials block even applicants who had never received public assistance before—leaving Barrett to defend the use of the “public charge” rule to exclude immigrants who were not a public charge. In another case, she refused to review a Salvadoran man’s petition for humanitarian protection in the United States. The man claimed that he would be murdered by gangs if he returned home, but immigration judges did not find credible his account of being attacked twice by gang members there. He pleaded that the discrepancies they identified in his story were due to his poor command of English. Rather than admit that possibility, Barrett curtly stated that “he could not keep the facts straight” and left him to an uncertain fate. 

Sitman continues, “This tendency to discipline the vulnerable is the flip side of Barrett’s leniency, even generosity, toward the powerful.” Her opinions regarding the rights of prison guards and gun owners have been well publicized. (As one recent headline read, Barrett wants felons to have guns but not the vote.) Barrett optimizes the preoccupations of contemporary “conservatives,” better described as the radical mainstream of the Republican party. None of these views have anything to do with the heart or dogma of Catholicism, not anymore than the fracases between the Guelphs and Ghibellines reflected the spirit of Catholic tradition. The violence in the streets of medieval of Italy, though not wholly disconnected from Catholic concerns, was primarily a matter of the narrow politics of a particular time and place. So it is with Barrett’s record on abortion, immigration, gun rights, &c. At least as her legal and judicial career is concerned, Barrett is a doctrinaire conservative first, a Catholic second.

A fight in the streets of Bologna between Guelphs and Ghibellines. What seemed a deeply fraught division within Catholicism in the thirteenth century is today viewed for what it was: little more than local Italian political struggles largely disconnected from serious matters of the faith.

And perhaps it’s a good thing that, in our secular society, a committed Catholic can separate her faith from her career as a judge. Maybe that’s what we want from our public servants. I don’t know—I’m undecided on that particular question. I do know that there’s a long tradition in the United States of religious minorities, be they Catholic or Jewish or Muslim or Mormon, standing before the American public and declaring that their faith will not unduly affect their ability to fulfill their duties as citizens and public servants. (Protestants rarely have to make such declarations.) So maybe it’s good that Barrett is willing to abandon the majority of Catholic teaching where her role on the Supreme Court will be concerned. In this view, she’ll behave as she ought: as an appointee of Donald Trump, a far-right Republican president.

All I know for sure is that Barrett’s zealous Catholicism has been grossly overstated by the media. As a commenter on my last post said, “If Barrett, and the other Catholics on the court, followed the Pope’s lead…SCOTUS would become 1000 times more progressive.”

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