As the U.S. Senate considers a devout Catholic, Amy Coney Barrett, as the next Supreme Court justice, we are reminded of the sometimes rocky and other times rich experiences Catholics have had throughout American history. Some have been celebrated, others not so much.
We can start with the original Thirteen Colonies and the “papists persecutions,” when Catholics loyal to the pope were persecuted because of their religion. The late Supreme Court Justice Sen. Hugo Black, once a KKK member, expressed fiery condemnation of Catholics. And one of the country’s best known Catholics, the late President John F. Kennedy, was a good example of having received both scorn and praise as a Catholic luminary. He was roughed up pretty good because of his faith in his first presidential run.
In many ways Catholicism is richly venerated in beautiful architecture, like the St. Patrick Cathedral, an icon of New York City. The Irish parade there attracts huge crowds and participants. Mother Teresa was once welcomed by throngs all over the country, as an emissary of Jesus and friend of the poor.
Yet Ms. Barrett has been questioned about her faith over time. Before the Supreme Court nomination, when she first ran for a federal judicial position, she was grilled by U.S. Senators considering her confirmation. “The dogma lives loudly within you,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in what was seen by many as an anti-Catholic slur.
Luckily, I was taught as a seminarian back in the 1980s, to wear such sayings as a badge of pride.
Catholics on one hand play prominent roles in American’s political and government system. Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic, could be the next U.S. president. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, unarguably the most powerful woman in the country, is a proud and devout Catholic. And now, Ms. Barrett will likely be the next Supreme Court judge, joining five other Catholic justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts. There are also 22 senators who are Catholic and 141 members of the U.S. House.
Most people now see Catholics as “acceptable” and will elect them to positions of power. But Ms. Barrett has received some criticism on how her religion could influence any court decisions. Former senator Joe Lieberman, an active Jewish politician and populist centrist, has called attacks on Ms. Barrett’s, or anyone’s religion, “abhorrent”. I couldn’t agree with him more.
If anything, Mr. Biden unfairly gets a free pass on his faith, despite that he is proudly pro-choice, which the U.S. Bishops and various popes have said is the “preeminent” issue of our times.
Still, the reality is that U.S. Catholics make up a wide range of people: social justice proponents, spiritualists, cradle Catholics, Christmas and Easter Catholics and Catholics in name only. They’re all Catholics, some respected, some reviled. As James Joyce, a sometimes Irish Catholic, once put it bluntly: “The Catholic church, here comes everybody.”
Some Catholics are more popular than others. Liberal Catholics are widely accepted. Think the politician John Kerry and actor Martin Sheen in Hollywood. Meanwhile, orthodox Catholics are outcast. Pope John Paul heralded neo-orthodoxy and was warmly welcomed as an outlier pope, but also a stern enforcer of faith. Now, Pope Francis has won over many secularists and revived social justice Catholics, environmentalists and never-Trumpers.
You would think that Ms. Barrett would be accepted because she has so many contemporary, feminist and lean-in movement boxes checked. She is a working mom, devoted to seven children, including two adoptees from Haiti and one son with Down syndrome. She drives kid carpools and participates in outreach to the poor. Her marriage is equitable. Yes, some dogma does live in her. And that is a good thing. She is an accomplished academician and jurist, and you would think she would get some senatorial affirmation. Instead, you hear they’re aiming at her faith, and that she is anti-abortion, and thus a threat to abortion rights and health care. Reviled.
It’s been said the last acceptable prejudice in the United States is anti-Catholicism, even though JFK eventually became a political rock star. Ms. Barrett, as she goes through confirmation, will both be skewered and showered with praise. In the process the hopes of working moms, spiritualists and humanists is being rejuvenated.
Rev. John J. Lombardi (email@example.com) is pastor of St Peter Catholic Church in Hancock and author of the recently published, “Practicing the Presence of God”.