When President Trump nominated Seventh Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court last month, some media outlets and politicians suggested she would bring her Catholic faith onto the bench when deciding matters of law.
The roughly 51 million Catholic adults in the United States are racially and ethnically diverse. Politically, registered Catholic voters are evenly split between those who lean toward the Democratic Party (47 percent) and those who favor the Republicans (46 percent).
For a long time, many Americans have seen Catholics as taking their cues from Rome and not the U.S. Constitution. In the mid-19th century nativist groups combined to form the Supreme Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, which was obsessed with a hatred of Catholics. Ultimately members of the movement were labelled the “Know-Nothings”. Among their demands were to ban Catholics from holding public office and fears that the growing Irish population was making the church a force in American government.
For years, American politics remained plagued by widespread anti-Catholic sentiment, especially in the South. The Irish bore the brunt of tensions that sometimes erupted into violence between Catholics and the Protestant majority. It was another instance of where white privilege was not equally distributed.
Today Catholics are fully assimilated into society. They inhabit an increasingly secular world in which theological dictates from the church carry far less weight than in earlier generations. Catholics, like members of any faith, pick and choose which teachings to follow. For instance, many U.S, Catholics want the church to allow priests to marry, allow women to become priests and come down hard on child abuse by priests and the church’s shameful cover-up of it.
The nomination of then-Professor Amy Coney Barrett to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017 stirred up an awakening of anti-Catholicism. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has the kind of voice that makes you wish you have remote control, tried to undermine the candidate’s legitimacy because she was a Catholic. Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Professor Barrett, “When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you. And that’s of concern”.
Senator Feinstein’s brand of bigotry is less like old-fashioned anti-Catholicism and more about the failure of Catholicism to distinguish between public and private moral duties, such as when the Little Sisters of the Poor fought the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate all the way to the Supreme Court and won, or the church’s opposition to capital punishment. Of course, there was no mention of how some governors and mayors are keeping houses of worship closed because of the coronavirus while opening schools, businesses, and even athletic events. Hypocrisy is alive and well.
Ironically, it was because of the questioning of Judge Barrett during her previous confirmation hearing three years ago and the subsequent blowback that Senate Judiciary Committee members avoided obsessive and nauseating spritzing about Judge Barrett’s Catholicism. Republican senators were smart to repackage questions about the Judge’s religious beliefs into bigotry, hoping the Democrats would alienate Catholic voters just before the Nov. 3 election.
Democrats avoided the trap. While arguing that a Justice Barrett would jeopardize Roe vs. Wade and the Affordable Care Act, they bent over backward to make clear that they did not oppose the nomination because of her Catholicism. Other senators asked probing questions such as do you support white supremacy, have you ever committed a sexual assault, who does the laundry in the Barrett household, and do you play a musical instrument.
The rest, as they say, is pure commentary.