Barrett, Jenkins, and the Test of Faith

I was disturbed but completely unsurprised to hear about the recent interrogation of Professor Amy Coney Barrett of Notre Dame Law School by Senator Diane Feinstein, the distinguished senior senator from California. Professor Barrett was nominated by President Trump to the Seventh Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals. I admit that being a Donald Trump nominee in the current political environment is an unenviable position for anyone, for reasons which are largely attributable to President Trump himself.

But not completely. In fact, the line of questioning which has shocked so many people had nothing to do with President Trump. Here’s the full appalling statement: “When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws, is that the dogma lives loudly within you. And that’s of concern when you come to big issues, that large numbers of people have fought for for years [sic] in this country.”

It seems that Coney’s major crime is that she is a committed Roman Catholic who – shockingly! – believes what her Church teaches on such matters as abortion, same sex marriage, and contraception.

Now of course, there is some degree of theater involved here. With no filibuster, there is nothing the Democratic Party can do to stop Trump’s judicial nominees except manufacture moral outrage in the hopes that a few Republican senators can be pressured. Still, as a Catholic, I cannot but wonder if this gratuitous assault (in which the Catholic Dick Durbin also participated) would have been levied on a nominee who was not a Catholic. It might be helpful to recall a strange document that elected officials don’t seem to read anymore, the Constitution of the United States:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

How have Feinstein’s (and Durbin’s for that matter) comments not established a religious test for office? If Barrett subscribed to Durbin Catholicism (the main tenet of which is not imposing his religion on other people), perhaps they wouldn’t be so bothered (recall that Durbin used to be pro-life). But it seems her orthodox views so angered them that in the midst of their overreaching they implied – appallingly – that she would not have the integrity to recuse herself in matters when she could not uphold the law. Adding to the delicious irony is that the senators were cherry-picking from an article Barrett wrote about Catholic judges who conscientiously objected to the death penalty. As John Garvey, the president of Catholic University, put it: “I never thought I’d see the day when a coalition of left-wing groups attacked a Republican judicial nominee for opposing the death penalty.”

This kind of liberal foaming at the mouth has become all too common. If they ever want a practicing Catholic to vote for them again, they should probably change their tactics a bit. (And I say this as one who agrees with the Democrats on significant issues.) Their willingness to attack people of faith because they hold differing views on things is disgraceful. Surely Senator Feinstein has basic philosophical assumptions about life – be they religious or not. How are we so certain that she keeps these opinions completely out of her decision making? Why is religious belief suddenly beyond the pale for those in public life? Is not the free exchange of strongly held opinions – and not censorship in the name of the elusive “objective observer” – what democracy is built upon?

While I am disheartened by the state of politics, I am impressed both by John Garvey at CUA and Father John Jenkins, the President of Notre Dame, who speedily came to the aid of his colleague:

Your concern, as you expressed it, is that “dogma lives loudly in [Professor Barrett], and that is a concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for years in this country.” I am one in whose heart “dogma lives loudly”, as it has for centuries in the lives of many Americans, some of whom have given their lives in service to this nation. Indeed, it lived loudly in the hearts of those who founded our nation as one where citizens could practice their faith freely and without apology.

Professor Barrett has made it clear that she would “follow unflinchingly” all legal precedent and, in rare cases in which her conscience would not allow her to do so, she would recuse herself. I can assure you that she is a person of integrity who acts in accord with the principles she articulates.

It is chilling to hear from a United States Senator that this might now disqualify someone from service as a federal judge. I ask you and your colleagues to respect those in whom “dogma lives loudly”—which is a condition we call faith. For the attempt to live such faith while one upholds the law should command respect, not evoke concern.

If Catholics and all people of faith are to have any future in the public affairs of this country, we are going to have to defend each other against the pretenses of the Diane Feinsteins of the world and say that no, our human reason is no less functional because we are faithful to the teachings of the Church. Father Jenkins should be commended for his defense of the rights of religious people in the public square. This is a good model to follow in communities large and small as we seek to live as the Body of Christ in the midst of the challenges of the age.