Facing down centuries of anti-Catholic bigotry in a watershed election, Massachusetts Sen. John Kennedy pledged in a September 1960 speech before Protestant ministers that if elected president he would adhere to the “absolute” separation of church and state.
In striking contrast to the long-established expectation that U.S. political leaders, in the discharge of their public duties, would be inspired and formed by deep-seated Christian beliefs, Kennedy promised something different, even radical: “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”
This month, Kennedy’s struggle to overcome anti-Catholic bigotry was brought back to life, in a form of political theater designed to damage the prospects of Catholic judicial nominees who threaten the survival of Roe v. Wade. On Sept. 6, Amy Coney Barrett, a widely published professor of law at the University of Notre Dame and President Donald Trump’s pick for the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, faced down a barrage of questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee about her Catholic faith and its likely impact on her handling of cases dealing with abortion rights. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, led the interrogation, with an assist from other Democrats on the committee, including Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Catholic.
“Why is it that so many of us on this side have this very uncomfortable feeling that, you know, dogma and law are two different things?” said Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the committee. “And I think in your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you.”
Feinstein didn’t hide her real concern: “You’re controversial because many of us who have lived our lives as women really recognize the value of finally being able to control our reproductive systems, and Roe entered into that, obviously,” she told Barrett. Durbin then took his turn: “Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?” he asked the nominee, while touting his many years of Catholic schooling. The surprising question referenced Barrett’s description of her religious beliefs in an essay that was published almost 20 years ago, when the nominee was a law student.
But it was Feinstein who mischaracterized the article’s conclusion, thus raising questions about Barrett’s fitness for the appellate bench. “You have a long history of believing that your religious beliefs should prevail,” the California senator told the nominee, a mother of seven and a well-regarded nominee who once clerked for the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.
Truth be told, the 1998 law review article in question, co-authored by Catholic constitutional scholar John Garvey, now the president of The Catholic University of America, reached a very different conclusion about the religious and professional responsibilities of Catholic jurists on the federal bench. In their paper, Barrett and Garvey posed this question: Must judges who accept Church teaching on capital punishment recuse themselves in federal death-penalty cases? After exploring this question, the authors concluded that such cases were far from common, and when they did arise, Catholic judges should recuse themselves if necessary.
But they also made the following point: “Judges cannot — nor should they try to — align our legal system with the Church’s moral teaching whenever the two diverge.”
During the Senate hearing, Barrett told the senators, “If you’re asking whether I’m a faithful Catholic, I am, although I would stress that my own personal Church affiliation or my religious belief would not bear on the discharge of my duties as a judge.”
The hostile interrogation of Amy Coney Barrett reveals how little — and how much — has changed for Catholics seeking public office since JFK’s day. The attacks on Barrett’s religious beliefs, said Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the U.S. bishops’ point man on religious freedom, “harken back to a time in our country when anti-Catholic bigotry did distort our laws and civil order.”
But the disturbing spectacle that unfolded at the Senate hearing also points to a more recent and thriving strain of anti-Catholicism in progressive circles. Judicial nominees, like Barrett, are under fire because they embrace the moral teachings of their Church on life — and also for their judicial philosophy, which seeks to interpret the Constitution according to the Founders’ intent.
Amy Coney was born in 1972, more than a decade after Catholics celebrated Kennedy’s election as president, and her parents may well have believed that anti-Catholicism had been swept into the dustbin of history. What they didn’t bargain for was the steady rise of a competing secular religion — an ideology of sexual rights secured by legal abortion — that dismissed Catholics and Christians as cultural and political outliers. And Kennedy’s pledge to privatize his faith now serves as a handy shield for Catholic lawmakers who put Roe first and tolerate — or even facilitate — attacks on fellow Catholics who refuse to go along.
Yet it’s worth noting that the attack on Barrett’s religion has provoked a backlash well beyond Catholic circles.
“Article VI of the United States Constitution provides explicitly that ‘no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” noted Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber in a statement that criticized the attack on Barrett’s Catholicism, echoing the views of her many defenders.
Still, in contrast to the drumbeat of condemnation against any threat to the rights of Muslim citizens, immigrants and refugees, the attack on Barrett drew a relatively muted response, and some legal analysts have even dismissed the controversy as a non-issue.
The tolerance of anti-Catholic bigotry reflects the glaring “blind spot” of Western liberals, said Sohrab Ahmari, a senior writer for Commentary magazine and a Catholic convert, in a column for The New York Times.
“One could be fully a believer and fully invested in a liberal constitutional order,” Ahmari said, but those who want to secure the progressive agenda cannot rest easy when a Catholic like Amy Coney Barrett is in their crosshairs and simply refuses to bow to their dominance in mainstream culture and politics.
“Even the remnants of the other side, in people’s minds and consciences, must submit to maximalist progressive claims,” said Ahmari. “It won’t happen, and the desire to do so isn’t actually liberal. It is, well, dogmatic. Not all dogmas involve Almighty God.”