For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
As has been documented in the Register here and here and across much of Catholic media and even some secular media, in early September President Trump’s nominee to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Professor Amy Coney Barrett, was savaged politically by several Democrat members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in a gruesome display of anti-Catholicism that questioned whether her Catholic faith should disqualify her from appointment to the federal bench.
The incident raised the specter of a religious test which is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution, and her exchange with Senator Dianne Feinstein during which the California Democrat proclaimed to Barrett that “the dogma lives loudly within you,” has become one of the most infamous comments in recent political memory.
For some weeks, the incident was allowed to simmer as the calendar moved closer to the actual vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee to advance the nomination for a full vote before the entire Senate. In a way that was easily predicted, the supporters of the committee and the various organizations trying now desperately to derail all of Trump’s conservative nominees, a final political assault was launched on the eminently qualified law professor from Notre Dame University. Just as predictable was that the strike should be made in the pages of the New York Times. On cue to coordinate with the impending vote of the committee, the Times published a story with the vaguely ominous title “Some Worry About Judicial Nominee’s Ties to a Religious Group.” Written by the well-known Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein, the article raised the specter of Barrett belonging to a seemingly fringe and malevolent sounding group called People of Praise. Goodstein writes:
Ms. Barrett told the senators that she was a faithful Catholic, and that her religious beliefs would not affect her decisions as an appellate judge. But her membership in a small, tightly knit Christian group called People of Praise never came up at the hearing, and might have led to even more intense questioning. Some of the group’s practices would surprise many faithful Catholics. Members of the group swear a lifelong oath of loyalty, called a covenant, to one another, and are assigned and are accountable to a personal adviser, called a “head” for men and a “handmaid” for women. The group teaches that husbands are the heads of their wives and should take authority over the family.
The description, of course, is like something straight out of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the current television darling of the Left (that won eight Emmy Awards at the recent angry and politically infused ceremony) based on the original 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood about a dystopian America in the hands of a totalitarian Christian theocracy.
Goodstein then suggests in the article that the Barrett hearing might have gone very differently had her membership in People of Praise been known at the time, implying that she had tried to hide the fact from the senators.
In the space of a few paragraphs, the Times portrays Barrett as a false Catholic, casts into doubt any claim that she is remotely within the judicial mainstream (a long manipulated term) and suggests that she deliberately withheld vital information from the Senate.
As with the original incident with the Senate Judiciary Committee, however, the New York Times piece was not left unanswered in the media.
Within hours of its release, several publications responded forcefully. But even more interesting is the ease with which the accusations have not only been refuted but demolished.
We can start with Ed Whelan’s two-part post for National Review’s blog “Bench Notes.”
He starts by stating for the record that People of Praise is an ecumenical group found across the country whose membership includes many Catholics. Notably, one of its members, Bishop Peter Smith, was named an auxiliary bishop of Portland in 2014 by Pope Francis. He adds:
Goodstein insinuates that Barrett improperly failed to list her membership in People of Praise on her Senate questionnaire response. But the Senate questionnaire, presumably because of concerns about improper inquiry into a nominee’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof), doesn’t ask about membership in religious organizations. (Contrast question 11.a.) So the simple answer to the climactic question from law professor Cathleen Kaveny that ends Goodstein’s article—“why didn’t she disclose this [i.e., her membership in People of Praise]?”—is that the questionnaire didn’t ask for it.
Meanwhile, Mollie Hemingway, Senior Editor at The Federalist, weighs in with her analysis with the title, “New York Times Joins Campaign Against Catholic Judicial Nominee.”
Hemingway argues that the Times “attempts to exculpate the senators who grilled Seventh Circuit judicial nominee Amy Coney Barrett by blaming Barrett for their questions,” and that far from being anti-Catholic bigots, the senators were asking Barrett fair questions based from her writings. “It was really her fault she was asked about the dogma living loudly within her,” Hemingway suggests, “because she had failed to cleanse all of her scholarship at the University of Notre Dame from mention of religion.”
Hemingway turns next to the People of Praise issue, going right to the Times’ assertion that “it would have been relevant for the senators to examine what it means for a judicial nominee to make an oath to a group that could wield significant authority over its members’ lives.”
“Yes,” Hemingway, writes, “this highly accomplished law professor who is now a judicial nominee is part of a conspiracy to suppress women, that’s the ticket. People who think that membership in this group legitimize a religious test are quoted, though they say that their religious test isn’t really a religious test but more just asking questions.”
Finally, both Whelan and Hemingway expose one of the worst aspects of the Times’ article – who are the “Some” so worried about Barrett’s ties to People of Praise? They are law professors both opposed to Barrett’s nomination. Hemingway jokes, “The people quoted for the article are all critics of Barrett’s, which means that ‘Some Worry About Religion Reporter’s Fairness.’”
This is serious business, of course. Barrett is eminently qualified to serve as a federal judge. And she is underserving of character assassination and having her Catholic faith used against her in such a fashion. We have seen this many times before in American history when Catholics are held in suspicion and the enemies of the Church have whispered or shouted the question, “Can you be both a good Catholic and a good American?”
Hemingway hits on something important here by reminding all of us that it really was not that long ago that Catholics were accused of divided loyalties. Just go back to the 1960s and the candidacy of John F. Kennedy.
The famous American historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., famously wrote, “prejudice against your Church is the deepest bias in the history of the American people.” The bias continues today, and it can even be found among some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and in the pages of the New York Times.