Senator Dianne Feinstein and Senate Democrats dredged up an old anti-Catholic prejudice for an inquisition into the Catholic faith of a president’s judicial nominee.
Awhile back I mentioned that the people who put together the Today’s Martyrs website gave it a subtitle: “Resources for understanding current Christian witness and martyrdom.” It came as a great surprise to me at the time that one of the resources it cites for original reporting on the subject of Christian witness and martyrdom is These Stone Walls.
The moderator of the site has been sending me its news analysis updates. He scours daily world news reports for up-to-date examples of the suppression of Christian witness. Many of the stories come from Pakistan, or China, or the Middle East, but a growing number come from the United States. The Today’s Martyrs news analysis for September 16, 2017 included this one:
“Two weeks ago, a law professor and nominee to a Federal appellate court, Amy Coney Barrett, was attacked in varying degrees by three [U.S.] Senators for essentially being a Catholic Christian.”
Here’s what happened. In mid-September, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved four of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees. However, another nomination was tabled with no decision. That nominee was Notre Dame Law professor Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic. She alone among the slate of judicial nominees was interrogated about her religious beliefs.
President Trump had nominated Ms. Barrett for a seat on the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Chicago During confirmation hearings one Republican, Senator Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) noted that Ms Barrett had in the past been outspoken about her Catholic faith and its place in her life. Seeing where he was going with this she replied that it is never appropriate for a judge to impose personal religious convictions on the law.
Some Senate Democrats took that cue to convene an inquisition. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) took the lead. Citing the issue of abortion “rights,” Senator Feinstein asked whether Ms. Barrett, as a judge, would follow the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Ms. Barrett stated, as she must, that lower courts are bound by Supreme Court precedents.
Then Senator Feinstein signaled that she was uneasy with Ms. Barrett’s professed religious faith. The Senator asked the nominee if she could separate Catholic faith from impartiality as a judge, and then lectured this distinguished Constitutional law professor about the separation between Church and State:
“I think in your case, professor, 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 in this country.”
Senator Feinstein and her fellow Democrats seemed to overlook the fact that the biggest of the “big issues fought for for years” by the largest number of people is religious liberty. America’s Founding Fathers considered it to be the “First Freedom” and the foundation for all political freedoms. As the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, religious liberty is at the forefront of the Bill of Rights:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
Central to religious liberty is the right to adhere to a professed faith without being censured for it. Several Republican senators objected to Senator Feinstein’s line of questioning, describing it as an unconstitutional “religious test” for public office. The brakes squealed a little but did not engage. The Democratic lawmakers persisted in their Catholic inquisition.
CATHOLICS FROM THE BASKET OF DEPLORABLES
Much of the U.S. news media ignored this story, but The Wall Street Journal carried it as both a news story and an editorial on September 15 and again on September 17. In a column entitled “Democrats Find Another Religious Heretic” (September 15), C.C. Pecknold, Associate Professor of Theology at Catholic University of America, seemed equally troubled by a question posed by Senator Dick Durbin (D., Ill).
Senator Durbin, who is himself a Catholic, represents Illinois, the state in which the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals resides. He asked the nominee, Ms. Barrett, what was described as a “McCarthyesque question”: “Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?” In his WSJ column, C.C. Pecknold described its implications:
“[Senator] Durbin’s attempt to make such a distinction shows that this affair is about more than Catholicism. It is about an ideology – a politically progressive civil religion – that makes comprehensive claims to which all other religions are expected to conform.”
A look at the terms used by these interrogators might help. Both “dogma” and “orthodox” have become political dirty words on the left side of politics in America these days, but they mean something in their essence that is not implied in the way these senators used them.
“Dogma” refers simply to a system of religious belief as defined by religious authority- in this case, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. To declare to a Catholic judicial nominee, as Senator Dianne Feinstein did, that “the dogma lives loudly within you” is to resurrect a prejudice that Catholics represent some foreign power. It’s a prejudice we thought was put to rest in the presidency of John F. Kennedy over a half-century ago.
“Orthodox” is another matter. It refers to living or adhering to a system of authoritatively defined beliefs. Asked of a Catholic candidate, it essentially implies a reservation that she is actually living the faith that she professes to believe.
In other words, Senator Durbin’s question could be rephrased: “Do you consider yourself to be Catholic-lite or do you actually adhere to your faith?” The implication is that “Catholic-lite” is far preferable for public office. It is the Catholicism of too many politicians, worn as a scarf when convenient but quickly shed when votes are at stake.
The simple bottom line is that in progressive civil religion, orthodox Catholics do not conform well to a “pick and choose,” “wink and nod” approach to Catholic faith. For the evidence of this, refer back to a controversial post of mine in the months leading up to the last U.S. presidential election, “Wikileaks Found Catholics in the Basket of Deplorables.”
That post explored a series of emails between John Podesta, campaign manager for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and leaders of the far-left nominally Catholic revisionist group, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Catholics in the now infamous “Basket of Deplorables” were orthodox Catholics who do not conform to the new politically progressive civil religion. In his WSJ column, C.C. Pecknold called them “political heretics”:
“Judicial nominations have become increasingly politicized since 1987, when Judge Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court was shot down. The left critiqued Bork in a similar way, though without reference to religion. Sen. Ted Kennedy didn’t tell Bork the ‘dogma lives loudly within you’… [Even] without religion as a pretext, Bork could still be dismissed as a political heretic.” (“Democrats Find Another Religious Heretic,” Sept. 15, 2017)
Anyone who dissents from the new political correctness of the sexual revolution is now defined by the loud left as unfit for public office. Catholics are okay as long as their faith is frosting on the cake and not the cake itself – as long as the dogma doesn’t live loudly within them.
POLITICS AS USUAL
The precedent cited by Mr. Pecknold in his WSJ column, the one that derailed Judge Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination, is a revelation of what constitutes heresy in a new state religion. Here’s what Senator Kennedy actually said in 1987 to sideline President Ronald Reagan’s nominee:
“Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, and school children could not be taught about evolution. Writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is – and is often the only – protector of the individual rights that are at the heart of our democracy.”
Of course, none of that was true. For Senator Ted Kennedy it was just politics as usual, and he did not actually believe any of what he said. He reportedly told Judge Bork that this wasn’t personal, “just politics.” In his book, The Tempting of America, Judge Bork blamed the news media more than Senator Kennedy for the wildly untrue distortions that prevailed in his nomination.
Politics as usual, but the news media had a mandate to exercise journalistic skepticism. Judge Bork found the media to lean so far to the left that it celebrated Kennedy’s remarks. Bork was a victim of the left and the news media and wrote that coverage of him in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the three major television networks was “unbelievably hostile.”
(On the day I write this, FOX News host Sean Hannity referred to the media as “the most corrupt institution in America.” More on that next week!)
For my part, since I am writing this post, I was struck by Senator Ted Kennedy’s concluding words of caution in his 1987 derailment of Judge Robert Bork in the paragraph above:
“…the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is – and is often the only – protector of the individual rights that are at the heart of our democracy.”
I have to admit that, like many in America, I have become jaded by “politics as usual.” And I have not exactly found the doors of the federal judiciary to be in any manner protective of my rights as a citizen.
Using the standard now established by Senators Feinstein and Durbin, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia could not be confirmed as a federal judge. Neither could Saint Thomas More had he been an American of the 21st Century.
It seems that the only dogma that lives loudly within the empty shell of the new civil political religion is one of moral accommodation on the fast track toward a spiritually bankrupt America. The question left is not what Amy Coney Barrett believes, but whether Senator Dianne Feinstein believes in anything at all worthy of belief.
As for judicial nominee Amy Coney Barrett, she may be a far more worthy candidate than most for the Saint Thomas More Medal. The dogma lived loudly within Thomas as well, and he upheld the law without surrender to the tyranny of moral accommodation to a politically acceptable suppression of his Catholic life of faith. Had he been a federal judge in America… well… one can only dream.
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League, has drafted letters to both Senator Dianne Feinstein and Senator Dick Durbin, raising many of the same issues that I raise here. These letters and his commentary are very much worth reading and as always right on point. The Church in America needs Bill Donohue.