Amy Coney Barrett has risen to the top of President Donald Trump’s short list to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the United States Supreme Court. A Roman Catholic, she is a life-long adherent of the People of Praise, a charismatic Christian group with a highly authoritarian internal structure.
Over the past several days, her backers have been arguing that public questions about her religious beliefs should be off limits—and that it’s anti-Catholic for Democrats even to raise questions about them, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein did in Barrett’s confirmation hearings the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in 2017. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt has accused Democrats and the news media of expressing an “anti-Catholic bias” that is “deep and enduring.”
I’m a Catholic scholar, I’ve written two books on the type of religious community that Barrett is a member of, and I don’t think it’s anti-Catholic to ask questions about Barrett’s religious beliefs. On the contrary, as the president nears a decision on her potential nomination later this week, I’m convinced they need to be front and center.
In particular, the Senate Judiciary Committee should be prepared to ask to examine any covenant—a solemn contract binding before God—that she signed in the course of becoming a full member of People of Praise. Doing so will protect, not erode, America’s foundational value of religious liberty.
Such a request to examine the covenant may seem unseemly to some. After all, the Constitution says that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust.” Catholics and scholars of Catholicism know how important this foundation of freedom is in the history of American Catholics; anti-Catholic bigotry is an old and ugly story in the United States.
But this is not a matter of anti-Catholicism or even liberal bias against conservative Catholics. Barrett’s nomination would raise an important new problem: Is there a tension between forthrightly serving as one of the final interpreters of the Constitution and swearing an oath to an organization that lacks transparency and visible structures of authority that are accountable to their members, to the Roman Catholic Church and to the wider public?
This is not a problem unique to the People of Praise . It is actually a typical feature of several new charismatic groups that arose in the late 1960s (after the Second Vatican Council), as a blend of Catholic traditions and Protestant Pentecostalism. Anthropologists, sociologists and theologians have documented not only the spiritual vitality and witness of such communities, but also their closed and secretive nature.
Even more troubling are the numerous first-person accounts of the ways in which some leaders and fellow members eroded and even destroyed their members’ spiritual and intellectual freedom. Former members of covenant communities have described top-down spiritual direction and control of members’ life decisions, including career choices and whom to marry. These reports are hard to confirm; the groups’ lack of transparency means it’s nearly impossible to know the rules that govern them—either because the foundational documents are not available to the public (in some cases, not even to Church authorities), or because the most important rules are unwritten and passed down orally from generation to generation, or a combination of these two cases.
The Catholic Church’s official stance toward these new Catholic movements and communities is instructive. Six years ago, in a speech to a world gathering of these new Catholic movements and communities, Pope Francis warned them directly against the temptation of “usurping individual freedom” of their members.
If the pope is raising some hard questions about the compatibility in the Catholic Church of individual freedom and the charisma of these communities, it will be entirely fair for the Senate to ask similar questions when considering the Supreme Court nomination of someone who belongs to such a community.
Let me be clear: This debate is also not about the “cultish” aspects of the People of Praise. Scholars of religion know that deploying the “cult” label is often a way of dismissing disfavored religious spiritual groups. Not all experiments in new models of community life are suspect.
At the same time, not all worries about these groups are unwarranted. Ironically, from a Catholic perspective, the two most pressing questions about the People of Praise may be the exact opposite of the ones raised so far in the discussion of Barrett’s potential nomination.
The first question from a Catholic perspective has to do with what Barrett actually believes about religion, political authority and constitutional interpretation. During Barrett’s 2017 confirmation hearing for her seat on the 7th Circuit, Sen. Dianne Feinstein infamously remarked that the “dogma lives loudly within you.” But the real question to ask members of Catholic charismatic communities isn’t whether dogma animates them, it’s whose dogma animates them.
The dogmatic dimension of the Catholic intellectual tradition is, literally, an open book—the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Its dogma not only binds its members, it also protects them. It guarantees believers freedom of conscience and safeguards the legitimate autonomy of the social-political community. In contrast, the moral and intellectual commitments of these new Catholic communities is often based more on the idiosyncratic charismatic authority of the founder and the leaders than on a robust commitment to the Catholic intellectual tradition.
The second question pertains to Barrett’s independence as a judge. To whom has Barrett made a vow of obedience? What is its nature and scope? What are the consequences of violating it? Groups like the People of Praise are a new form of lay Christian life. The members of these communities are (and see themselves as) different from ordinary nonordained Catholics, who do not take vows to obey their parish priests and bishops. But members of covenant communities do typically make broad vows of obedience to community leaders.
Vows of obedience, of course, are nothing new in the Catholic Church. Nor are they the exclusive province of conservative Catholics. Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans and lay Catholic members of “secular institutes” all take them. Some people might understandably balk at having a member of a religious order or Opus Dei sit on the Supreme Court. But at least in these communities, the vow of obedience that such a person has made would be visible, formal and accountable. That is not the case with new Catholic charismatic communities, whose vows are not public and whose leadership is not accountable under Church law.
Let’s leave aside questions of ideology and political perspective. The key point is this: The analogy drawn between members of new Catholic communities and other Catholics in public office is false. Amy Coney Barrett is not Catholic like John F. Kennedy was Catholic or Joe Biden or Paul Ryan or the late Antonin Scalia was Catholic. She has made solemn promises that go far beyond the baptismal promises every Catholic makes. Nor is Barrett like Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest who served for many years in the U.S. House of Representatives. His vows of obedience as a Jesuit were open and public.
The Catholic Church is learning how to appreciate the good offered by new charismatic communities while combating their potential for abuse. In so doing, the Church trusts the Holy Spirit to guide its discernment.
While the president and the Senate cannot be expected to call upon divine guidance, they can and should exercise prudence and good judgment in vetting nominees to the highest court in the land—and that includes examining oaths and commitments they may have made that could affect or supersede an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.