It may be tempting to focus primarily on Amy Coney Barrett’s membership in People of Praise. But we shouldn’t. As a Catholic, I find that organization to be concerning and her involvement, maybe also concerning. Its charismatic practices are certainly out of line with mainstream Catholicism. And its, authoritarian, often cult-like operation raises important questions, especially when one considers its view on wifely submission to her husband. Her involvement raises questions that do need to be discussed that will be touched on below. As someone who attends Mass on a regular basis, I do not see that within the creed of my Church.
But the main issue before us is, would an Associate Justice Barrett use her position to deny religious freedom to others?
This question goes to heart of reproductive rights. Judge Barrett has made it quite clear that she not only opposes abortion (describing it as “always immoral”) but also artificial birth control. Since she also believes that there are circumstances in which prior U.S. Supreme Court precedent can be overturned. This would apply not only to Roe v. Wade, but therefore possibly Griswold v. the State of Connecticut as well.
The issue with the Barrett nomination for me as a Catholic is quite simple: I choose to dissent from my Church on certain issues such as choice, birth control and embryonic stem cell research. Judge Barrett, on the other hand, follows a more orthodox approach to the Church. That is her right to do so. It is also the Church’s right to set such doctrine. But what concerns me is that she may use the power of the federal government to impose her particular Catholicism, one that is clearly not in sync with most American Catholics, on me and those that share my faith who look to the government to shield me from the excesses of Church hardliners.
A number of my co-religionists, the ones who are anti-choice have a peculiar habit of looking at the issue of abortion only through the lens of orthodox Catholicism. What of a SCOTUS justice that sees abortion as “always immoral”? That sounds like someone that is primed and ready to substitute her Church’s particular teaching on the matter as the only true religious position on the matter.
Of course, the Vatican view is not the only religious view on this.
There are numerous Christian denominations, not to mention other religions that are pro-choice on a theological basis as there are other religious denominations that believe that abortion is a matter of individual conscience. And yet there are other denominations whose position is more complicated. Different faiths and denominations disagree on abortion.
For example, in Judaism when a mother’s life is endangered by a pregnancy, it is Jewish law that the mother’s life, a life in being, takes precedent (as a Catholic, I would posit that there is a strong presumption that Jesus, being Himself Jewish, would accept this position). Would an Associate Justice Barrett rule that a pregnant Jewish woman who will risk death if the pregnancy is carried through be denied an abortion? If that would be her ruling, then she can no longer claim the mantle of religious freedom, but of religious supremacist.
And therein lies the conundrum. The Jewish (or any similarly situated) woman would be having a late-term abortion. Would a Justice Barrett deny that woman the life saving procedure? In a law review article she co-authored while teaching at Notre Dame Law School, Judge Barrett grappled with whether a Catholic federal judge could recuse herself in death penalty cases. Catholicism is opposed to the death penalty. In her justification she tried to distinguish death penalty cases from either abortion or euthanasia by stating, “We might distinguish between executing criminals and killing the aged and the unborn in this way: criminals deserve punishment for their crimes; aged and unborn victims are innocent.”
But this statement is too open-ended to be conclusive. After all, isn’t the woman whose life is in danger from a dangerous pregnancy also innocent? And what of the woman who was raped and is made pregnant by her attacker? Would a justice Barrett rule that she too would have to carry to term? Again, if the answer were yes to either question, Amy Coney Barrett would not be practicing religious freedom, but religious supremacy.
At the heart of the abortion question for the orthodox Catholicism is the belief that life begins at conception. But the bigger question is, at what point does an individual human exist? Initially, an embryo can either split into two separate embryos or even merge with another embryo to form a singular embryo. And the embryo itself contains what will be discarded as the placenta – something that is objectively understood not to be a distinct human life.
That is not a position of science, but a position of both faith and of specific creed. For Jews and Muslims, the first forty days an embryo’s existence has the equivalence of water: it is not considered an individual human being. Ask any objective doctor when a human being first exists and you will be told that science cannot provide an answer to that question. The answers to these questions matter as they go to both access to legal birth control and stem cell research.
Briefly, with regard to Judge Barrett’s involvement with the group People of Praise, it should be noted that this is not a Catholic organization but an ecumenical group that has members of various Christian denominations. The issue here is one of hierarchical submission. We know the organization advocates submission of the wife to the husband. Will that impact in any way upon her decision-making? But that opens the door to other questions. Does the husband, in turn, answer to someone or some group above him that instructs him how to instruct his wife how to act in positions of public power? These are questions we do not have the answer to. Indeed, while there may be nothing of concern the question still needs to be asked.
Again, would an associate justice Barrett impose her personal religious interpretation of when life begins upon all Americans?
And it is fair to ask these questions of her. After all, she herself has opened the door on the application of her faith to her judicial decisions. Judge Barrett may claim that she is exercising religious freedom but in reality she is imposing her interpretation of faith on the American people and that is the exact opposite of religious freedom.
In the end, this is about reciprocity. As a Catholic, and an American, I am obliged to respect the religious views of others, and I oppose the imposition of our faith (and its variants) by Catholic members of the judiciary on my fellow, non-Catholic Americans. If a Catholic justice of the U.S. Supreme Court were to impose on all other Americans her specific religious views on such a personal issue as reproductive rights, that would be a reckless confirmation of the anti-Catholic bigotry spewed when Catholic ethnics first started arriving on these shores in significant numbers. The fear was that they would make non-Catholics subject to their particular teachings.
Let’s not go there.