Anti-Catholic sentiment has been deeply embedded in the American consciousness and in her institutions since their founding. There has always been a sense that Catholicism is incompatible with the American experiment, a threat to liberty and an insidious factor to be rooted out for the protection of American culture. This belief is found in the words of Thomas Jefferson, who maintained that a “free civil government” could not be maintained by a “priest-ridden people,” in the (later overturned) 1922 Oregon Compulsory Education Act forbidding students to attend parochial schools, and in the persistent warnings about the unsuitability of Catholics for public office.
In the 18th century, John Jay encouraged the New York state legislature to disallow Catholics from holding public office.
The 19th century saw the rise of the nativist Know Nothing Party, where Thomas R. Whitney and others expounded on the threat papists posed to the solvency of the Unites States, and the imperative to eliminate Catholics from service in governmental roles.
John F. Kennedy’s 20th century presidential campaign was marked by a paranoid fear that his success would mean a papal takeover. Popular Protestant minister Norman Vincent Peale insisted that, “Faced with the election of a Catholic, our culture is at stake.”
The latest of these warnings about the grave danger Catholicism allegedly poses to American liberty came at Amy Barrett’s confirmation hearing last week. Senator Dianne Feinstein informed Professor Barrett that “the dogma lives loudly within you,” by way of explaining her own discomfort with Barrett’s nomination. Feinstein believes this is a concern with respect to “… big issues that large numbers of people have fought for for years in this country.”
In other words, Amy Barrett’s Catholic faith is a threat to American democracy.
All judges hold personal convictions. Some of them have come to these convictions through religious faith, some have not. No appointee is a blank slate. Even if she were, that would not speak to her credit. One might reasonably wonder about the intellectual acumen and integrity of a judge who completed law school, clerkship, and years of professional service while forming no convictions whatsoever.
While understandable in the current political climate, the way in which some judicial appointees have refused to discuss their own views on controversial topics is somewhat absurd. The beliefs and principles of a judicial appointee are relevant. Clearly, some principles would disqualify one from serving as a judge on an American court.
Judges interpret the law, they do not make it. A judge whose personal convictions dictated that she should place her own legal opinions above the law as it is written would clearly not be fit for her office. Those convictions would preclude her from judgeship, even if they were religious in origin. This would not be a case of a religious test, but of unwillingness to do the job as it is defined.
That being the case, does adherence to the Catholic faith automatically preclude one from serving as an American judge (or legislator, or executive)? Are the principles of Catholic dogma in contradiction with the principles of the American political order?
More specifically, how does Catholic doctrine around the issues of religious freedom, exercise of conscience, and the role of the state align (or not) with our system of government in America?
Regarding religious freedom and the role of the individual conscience:
The Second Vatican Council taught that the “right of the human person to religious freedom must be given such recognition in the constitutional order of society as will make it a civil right….He is bound to follow his conscience faithfully in all his activity.” (Dignitatis Humanae 2-3)
The United States Constitution states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Regarding the role and purpose of the state:
Gaudium et Spes asserts that, “The political community…exists for the common good.”
The preamble to the United States Constitution declares that it intends to “promote the general Welfare.”
The point is not that Catholic moral teaching and American law agree always; it is clear they do not. Rather, the point is that a Catholic is not, in virtue of her religious beliefs, at odds with foundational American principles of government.
Senator Feinstein said, “Dogma and law are two different things, and I think whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different.”
Yet, if Amy Barrett is as committed to her Catholic faith as Feinstein believes, then she surely subscribes to the Catholic teaching that, “The political community and the Church are autonomous and independent of one another in their own fields.” (Gaudium et Spes 76)
Barrett reaffirmed that she would uphold all legal precedents, and said that if she were faced with a situation in which she could not reconcile her professional duty with her conscience, she would recuse herself, in accord with federal statute 28 U.S.C. § 455, which allows a federal judge to recuse himself on the basis on “personal bias or prejudice.”
Dogmas- precepts set forth as indisputably true by some authority- are not only religious in origin. Senator Feinstein revealed the dogmas which live loudly within her during continued questioning; the absolute necessity of support for Roe v. Wade—a “no on Roe” would an absolute deal breaker for her—and the incompatibility of the Catholic faith with what it means to be American. Feinstein’s objections are based solely on cultural elements of anti-Catholic bigotry and not on any just or reasonable doubt about Professor Barrett’s qualifications or integrity.
That prejudice led her to violate the very Constitution she purports to defend, and its insistence that “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The precedent set by Feinstein and her colleagues is a dangerous one that will impoverish our nation by depriving the American people of the service of highly qualified individuals on the basis of bigotry and bias.