During a Wednesday Senate confirmation hearing for Amy Coney Barrett, nominated for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said to Barrett, a practicing Catholic, “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.” Feinstein was suggesting that Barrett would substitute her religious positions for sound judicial reasoning, despite the fact that in her scholarship addressing this very question, Barrett had written, “[J]udges cannot — nor should they try to — align our legal system with the Church’s moral teaching whenever the two diverge,” and had testified similarly during the hearing.
Then on Thursday in an interview with Charlie Rose for CBS’s 60 Minutes, Steve Bannon, the former Chief Strategist in the Trump White House and now executive chairman of Breitbart News, told Rose that the U.S. Catholic bishops “have an economic interest in unlimited immigration” which explains their stance on issues such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Bannon went on, “I totally respect the pope and I totally respect the Catholic bishops and cardinals on doctrine. This is not about doctrine. This is about the sovereignty of a nation. And in that regard, they’re just another guy with an opinion.”
Although there are important differences between Feinstein and Bannon’s comments, there are also intriguing commonalities. Feinstein said of Barrett, “the dogma lives loudly within you.” Catholics on social media have ironically adopted this phrase as a matter of pride, in the sense that Catholics should strive to embody in their lives the truths of faith expressed in the church’s dogmas. But it seems clear that Feinstein’s point was that because Barrett takes her faith so seriously, she could not be trusted to apply the law as a judge in cases where the law conflicts with Catholic moral teaching. In Feinstein’s perspective, adherence to religious dogma raises suspicions about one’s ability to act rationally in a political or legal setting. This view was also expressed by Feinstein’s Democratic colleague Sen. Dick Durbin, who asked Barrett, “Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?” This suggests that adherence to religious orthodoxy is in itself a disqualification for public office.
On the other hand, Bannon’s accusation against the Catholic bishops is not that they are improperly applying Catholic dogma in the sphere of politics, but rather that they are involving themselves in an issue of public policy that has nothing to do with the doctrine they have been entrusted with teaching. Bannon accused the bishops of acting in their economic interests while cloaking those interests in religious language and authority.
Despite this significant difference, Feinstein and Bannon’s comments share in common the view that religious faith has little place in the realm of public life, whether judicial decision-making or crafting public policy. Both imply that while religious faith may play a role in one’s private life—one can adhere to dogmas or doctrines about things with no direct relevance to public life—it is inappropriate to think that one’s faith has anything to do with public life. The Catholic Church proposes, however, that Christian faith does indeed have relevance for public life, even if faithful Christians must respect others’ freedom of conscience and the democratic process, and must avoid the temptation of overly associating political interests with religious ones.
In response to Bannon’s remarks, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, said, “I think [it] is a preposterous and rather insulting statement that the only reason we bishops care for immigrants is for the economic because we want to fill our churches and get more money. That’s insulting and that’s just so ridiculous that it doesn’t merit a comment.” He went on to say, however, that “This is not an issue of Catholic doctrine because it comes from the Bible itself, and we Catholics are people of the book. And the Bible is so clear — so clear — that to treat the immigrant with dignity and respect, to make sure that society is just in its treatment of the immigrant, is biblical mandate.”
Although Cardinal Dolan’s comments are potentially misleading by suggesting that some of the church’s social doctrine is not ultimately grounded in the Bible, he rightly clarifies that the church’s forays into public policy, on immigration and other issues, arise in response to God’s revelation. Church doctrine is not simply a set of beliefs about a remote, transcendent God, but rather the church’s articulation of its faith in the God who acts in history and who gathers a people to live out a covenant with God in history. The church’s modern social teaching is an adaptation of this faith to the realities of contemporary political and social life.
Then what of Feinstein’s concerns that a Catholic might override law with dogma? The foundation of the church’s social doctrine is the dignity of the human person, and the church has drawn from this its teaching on respect for freedom of conscience and religious liberty, and the idea that all people should participate in crafting the laws and policies that govern them. In the judicial sphere, a judge’s responsibility is to apply and interpret the law, not impose religious doctrine when it conflicts with the law, although it is possible that a judge’s Catholic faith might influence the interpretive tools he or she uses to make sense of the law and apply it in a particular case.
Sen. Feinstein’s press secretary provided Alexandra DeSanctis of National Review with passages from Barrett’s work that raised the senator’s suspicions. In one, Barrett writes, “Your legal career is but a means to an end, and . . . that end is building the kingdom of God. . . . [I]f you can keep in mind that your fundamental purpose in life is not to be a lawyer, but to know, love, and serve God, you truly will be a different kind of lawyer.” In another she writes, “Life is about more than the sum of our own experiences, sorrows, and successes. It’s about the role we play in God’s ever-unfolding plan to redeem the world.” In these passages Barrett is saying that a Catholic can understand a legal or judicial career as part of one’s Christian vocation. It is quite a leap to suggest that here Barrett is implying that Catholics must impose dogma on others rather than apply sound legal reasoning; indeed, a more straightforward reading is that Barrett believes that using sound legal reasoning and making sound judgments is itself one way of living out the Christian life.
Feinstein and Bannon’s comments show that misunderstandings of the church’s involvement in public life can come from both the left and the right. They also demonstrate that the Catholic Church remains in need of people who can articulate well what it actually believes about faith and public life, and politicians, lawyers, and judges who faithfully live out that teaching while also faithfully carrying out their public duties.
Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.