Editorial: Solemn Promises: The Case of Amy Coney Barrett

In an address delivered to the Law School and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame in October 2019, Attorney General William Barr spoke ominously of a “dangerous licentiousness” creeping into American public life. This, he said, was “the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good”; it was “another form of tyranny . . . where the individual is enslaved by his appetites, and the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.”

It was a bit rich to reread Barr’s remarks in light of the event at the White House Rose Garden on September 26. The gathering, held in honor of President Donald Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court, is now infamously known as the “super spreader” site that resulted in numerous attendees contracting Covid-19—including Trump himself. Almost none of the participants in the event that day wore masks, and photos from both the Rose Garden and later inside the White House show guests mingling in close proximity.

Barr was among the high-profile attendees. In the days following the president’s diagnosis, one widely circulated image showed Barr and former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway—who would herself test positive—speaking face-to-face. Both were unmasked. Barr traveled to Oklahoma the following week, and when he returned to Washington refused to self-quarantine even with knowledge that Conway had tested positive. He only later reversed course and agreed to self-isolate.

Particularly upsetting about the photographs of the event was the gap between Barr’s high-minded rhetoric vis-à-vis the Notre Dame speech and the reality of his actions. Here was an opportunity to set “personal appetites”—in this case, the desire to hobnob without the interference of safety precautions—aside for the greater good of the community. In this he was not alone. Seeing the photos, one could not but think of the countless sacrifices the American people have made since the outbreak of the virus in March and compare them to the brazen, yes, licentiousness of the power brokers at the White House, carrying on with a public celebration as if they were invincible.

That the event was held in honor of Barrett added another level of scrutiny. Senate Republicans were already facing charges of hypocrisy for their refusal to grant President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, a hearing in 2016 because it was an election year while making every effort to fast-track Barrett’s hearing in 2020. This was despite the fact that Garland was nominated over seven months before the election, and Barrett less than 40 days.

Though two members of the Senate, Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, tested positive for the virus after attending the White House event, Senate Republicans remained committed to a speedy hearing over concerns for health and safety. Barrett’s past stance on healthcare—she authored a piece in 2017 criticizing Chief Justice John Roberts’s 2012 decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act—lent this a biting irony. As Ben Jealous, the president of the People for the American Way, pointed out, Senate Republicans were risking their health to confirm a nominee who could likely strike down healthcare protections for others.

Barrett’s opinions on the ACA are part and parcel of her originalist judicial philosophy, shaped in the mold of her mentor Antonin Scalia. Originalists believe that the text of the Constitution is absolute, and that any attempt to adapt its precepts to changing circumstances is invalid. Like Scalia and Attorney General Barr, she is a conservative Catholic whose faith has informed her theory and practice of the law.

Much has been made of Barrett’s Catholic background and how it might affect her decisions on the court. To be clear, it is not so much that she identifies as a Catholic that has alarmed some of her critics, but rather her affiliation with the charismatic group People of Praise. Charismatic groups are still a relatively new phenomenon in the Catholic Church, mixing Catholic doctrine with Protestant Pentecostalism, and their internal, authoritarian structures are known to be highly secretive. “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,” Villanova professor of theology Massimo Faggioli explained in Politico. If Barrett has made a vow of obedience to People of Praise, it raises legitimate questions about the nature of this vow, its chain of accountability, and how it might impact her ability to adjudicate decisions in an impartial way. As Faggioli clarified: “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.”

Even with these distinctions, some members of the Senate have tried to turn Barrett’s hearing into a referendum on her faith in and of itself, as if any questioning illustrates an anti-Catholic bias—evidence of a persecution complex that rings hollow if one considers that Barrett would become the sixth Catholic on the court if she is confirmed. The media and many on the left have taken the bait, framing the hearing almost entirely in terms of religious and social issues. While these issues—and how Barrett might respond to them—are undoubtedly important, the truth is that the Supreme Court spends a proportionate amount of time on business-related cases that can further entrench corporate power within our democracy. It is on such cases that Barrett’s record demands the most thorough questioning. In a piece for the Guardian, David Sirota succinctly summarized Barrett’s pro-corporate, anti-consumer record:

Only a month before Barrett was nominated to the high court by Donald Trump, she delivered a ruling that could help corporations avoid paying overtime to gig workers. That ruling followed her other rulings limiting the enforcement of age-discrimination laws, restricting the government’s power to punish companies that mislead consumers and curtailing consumers’ rights against predatory debt collectors.

By “steering the confirmation battle into focusing only on social and cultural issues,” Sirota continued, Senate Republicans can avoid “spotlighting the corporate power issues that might make rank-and-file conservative voters see Barrett’s nomination as an economic betrayal of the working class.”

Catholics who may find such economic issues abstracted from their day-to-day reality or separate from more high-profile social justice causes are reminded that increased corporate power has an ill effect on much of what the church holds dear: the sacredness of the environment, the dignity of human labor and the universal destination of goods, the preferential option for the poor. In Laudato Si’ and more recently in Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis has warned of the dangers of transnational corporations that are accountable to no political body, and his 2015 address in Bolivia he spoke critically of “the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.” With her well-known devotion to the church, Barrett has likely meditated on these statements of the Holy Father; whether or not she will allow them to speak to her at that innermost point of her conscience, away from the cacophony of Charles Koch–funded networks, chambers of commerce, and corporatist political projects, could affect the direction of our country for generations to come.

Michael Centore
Editor, Today’s American Catholic

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