An ultra-conservative, charismatic Catholic? Judicial appointee Amy Barrett gets slammed

When a Catholic nominee for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals was dragged across the coals at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing several weeks ago, all sorts of people cried foul.

Writers from the Atlantic to the National Catholic Register wondered how come Amy Coney Barrett was sliced and diced by the Senate committee on the basis of a paper she co-wrote with one of her law school professors back in 1998. Even a Catholic archbishop filed a protest.

So it felt like a double whammy to some when the New York Times on Thursday piled on by a piece headlined “Some Worry about Judicial Nominee’s Ties to a Religious Group.” This passage is long, but essential.

One of President Trump’s judicial nominees became something of a hero to religious conservatives after she was grilled at a Senate hearing this month over whether her Roman Catholic faith would influence her decisions on the bench.
The nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, a law professor up for an appeals court seat, had raised the issue herself in articles and speeches over the years. The Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee zeroed in on her writings, and in the process prompted accusations that they were engaged in religious bigotry.
“The dogma lives loudly within you,” declared Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, in what has become an infamous phrase. Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, accused his colleagues of employing an unconstitutional “religious test” for office.
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.

I’m not sure how 1,800 members qualify as “small,” but maybe that’s just me. It turns out I lived two years in a quasi-covenant community in Portland, Ore., shortly after I graduated from college.

The experience hardly turned me into an automaton: Not only was my master’s thesis on authoritarianism in charismatic covenant communities, but my 2009 book was on the same topic. So, I’m familiar with the ecumenical People of Praise as well as similar Catholic communities (Word of God, Servants of Christ the King, Work of Christ, Mother of God, etc.) around the country, some of which I visited.

The two powerhouses: Word of God and People of Praise, had parted ways in the early 1980s, as Word of God was considered the more authoritarian of the two groups. (However, in the fall of 1990, the leaders of the Word of God had a major repentance-fest at a set of community gatherings regarding the way they controlled members’ lives).

But People of Praise managed avoid those quagmires, so survived after many other of the communities nationwide had splintered or died.

It's crucial that the Times article implies that membership in People of Praise pushes one out of mainstream Catholicism in that era. Read this passage again:

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.

The article continues:

Legal scholars said that such loyalty oaths could raise legitimate questions about a judicial nominee's independence and impartiality. The scholars aid in interviews that while there certainly was no religious test for office, 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 would wield significant authority over its members' lives.

Are these covenants really Joe McCarthy-style loyalty oaths? Shouldn't we explain exactly what oaths/promises/covenants are, in the context of religious communities and congregations? True, People of Praise's practices may surprise some Catholics (those who’ve never read up on covenant communities), but does that make this woman dangerous or subversive?

The article goes on to cite more “legal scholars” who wonder out loud how independent Barrett could really be under such a group.

“These groups can become so absorbing that it’s difficult for a person to retain individual judgment,” said Sarah Barringer Gordon, a professor of constitutional law and history at the University of Pennsylvania. “I don’t think it’s discriminatory or hostile to religion to want to learn more” about her relationship with the group.

How does Gordon come by this knowledge? Has she studied these communities or lived in one? People do leave these communities, so we’re not talking about Jonestown here.

I appreciate the citation of Adrian Reimers’ research in the article but he published it 20 years ago, so I’m curious as to what’s happened in People of Praise since then. Am wondering if anyone from the National Service Committee for the Catholic Charismatic Renewal or the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee on Charismatic Renewal was called for comment, as they might have had a different take on People of Praise.

(Another key word here is "Cursillo," a movement with plenty of influence in mainstream Catholic life [letter from the future Pope Francis here], especially with charismatics. If you look up "People of Praise," you run into Cursillo right away.)

Within a few hours of the Times article’s publication, the National Review was all over it, pointing out that the group can’t be all that demonic if Pope Francis appointed one of its members as the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., in 2014.

Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, had a Tweet storm going as well, so commentary on the piece definitely was humming all Thursday afternoon.

Are critics right that the article contained innuendo suggesting there was something sinister about the nominee if she belonged to such a medieval group? In quoting Boston College professor Cathleen Kaveny (who criticized Barrett) at the end of the article, should the reporter have mentioned that Kaveny was a former colleague of Barrett’s at Notre Dame and obviously knew the local gossip that Barrett belonged to People of Praise?

I can’t help but compare the fuss over Barrett with the silence over President Barack Obama’s appointees to judicial positions who had major links to Planned Parenthood. And one of those judges also didn’t mention her affiliation on her application, which means that Barrett isn’t the only person out there who doesn’t disclose everything.

Then again, I guess Planned Parenthood is seen as neutral compared to the dangers of “a small tightly knit Catholic group.”

Reporting on covenant communities is a tough slog even if you've studied up on it. The group's bylaws and practices aren't public, so you have to guess at what goes on there and the folks who tend to comment on the record are the ones who left under a cloud. But just because the group is secretive doesn't mean they're into world domination. It would be nice for reporters to convey that subtlety to their readers.

Here's a good place to start: Read up on how the last three popes have praised and critiqued various expressions of the Catholic charismatic movement. There's lots of information there, with leaders on both sides learning from each other. Check it out.

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