President Trump is floating for the Supreme Court the name of the judge likely to provoke a firestorm of debate about religion along America’s cultural fault lines: Judge Amy Coney Barrett is a hero of some religious Americans, but her ties to a little-understood faith group are viewed with deep suspicion by others.
Barrett, a 46-year-old recently appointed circuit court judge who has been endorsed by every clerk she has worked with and the entire faculty of Notre Dame’s law school where she taught, is affiliated with People of Praise, a tightknit, mostly Catholic group of about 1,700 adult members across the country.
Some see People of Praise — which calls for members to seek guidance in many aspects of their lives from a personal spiritual guide — as a potentially inappropriate sway over a judge’s decision-making. Even Pope Francis in 2014 warned lay-led groups like Barrett’s about “usurping individual freedom” and “delegat[ing] important decisions about their lives to others.”
But others see the inquiries about People of Praise as simple bias against the very religious, Catholics in particular.
When Barrett was confirmed as a U.S. Circuit Court judge last year, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) angered some Catholics by bringing up Barrett’s Catholicism. “You have a long history of believing your religious beliefs should prevail,” Feinstein said to Barrett. “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 years in this country.”
Feinstein’s oddly worded phrase that “the dogma lives loudly” became an instant meme among some Catholics, who said it showed outright bias, and they put it on coffee mugs and T-shirts as a sign of pride.
This time around, if Trump chooses to nominate Barrett to the Supreme Court, Democratic senators may be more cautious in their wording. But some say People of Praise should be fair game for questions to Barrett.
Any Christian is welcome in the group, but it is largely comprised of Catholics. It emerged in the late 1960s in South Bend, Ind., the home of Notre Dame, where Barrett was a law professor before her appointment as a judge last year.
People of Praise appeared after the Second Vatican Council, when in an effort to accommodate diversity and globalization, the church for the first time encouraged lay-led groups that had different styles of prayer. Generally what the groups shared was a desire for a more intense, more experiential faith.
Some of these lay-led groups have tens of thousands of members, like Focolare, which focuses on interfaith dialogue, and Communion and Liberation, which emphasizes that Christians must take their faith outside the private sphere.
Many of these groups are charismatic, meaning they pray in a demonstrative way more typical of Protestant Pentecostal groups — speaking in tongues and practicing faith healing. While evil is a core focus of all faiths’ theology, for charismatic groups like the People of Praise, the idea of dark forces at work is very real, not metaphoric.
People of Praise is focused on community. Single members might choose to live in a house with a family, or live in a house with other single members. Each member has a spiritual guide, called a “head.” The regional female leaders were called “handmaids” before the Margaret Atwood novel and subsequent TV series made that word too charged, and are now called “women leaders,” said Craig Lent, People of Praise’s overall coordinator, a position akin to chairman of the board. The coordinator is elected by the board to a single, six-year term.
Members generally belong to their local Catholic parish and attend those services Sunday, then meet with their local People of Praise community in the afternoon, as well as in a small, single-gender groups once a week, Lent said.
Members turn to their spiritual leader for guidance in their lives, on everything from family to finances.
Thomas Csordas, a UC-San Diego anthropologist who is a leading scholar on Catholic charismatic groups, said the same communal impulse that generated the hippie communes of the 1960s fueled religious groups like People of Praise at the same time. “They were looking for that sense of community. They took it in a direction that was conservative, authoritarian and patriarchal,” he said.
While one-to-one guidance is important in People of Praise, the group teaches individual prayer as well, he said. “She might go to [her spiritual leader] with respect to: ‘Should I take this position?’ ” if she’s nominated to the Supreme Court, Csordas said. “But with regard to making decisions on specific cases, a person in her position would be likely, I’m guessing, to say: ‘Well, I’m the expert on this, not my personal head.’”
Massimo Faggioli, a church historian and theologian at Villanova University, a Catholic school, studies these lay-led movements – also called “renewal” groups – that began popping up since Vatican II. They are, he says, seen as both engines of innovation and energy within the Catholic Church, but also potentially of concern, because in some cases they lack transparency and can be “very militant. They are like Christians of the second and third century. They devote everything to the mission.”
Lent, who is an engineering professor at Notre Dame, said cultlike depictions of People of Praise don’t match anything he’s lived or heard in his decades with the group. “We always say, every person has personal freedom, you have to be responsible for your own decision and responsible to your conscience,” he told The Post.
Many emphasize that spiritual headship isn’t a shadowy influence; it’s more akin to a support group.
“My understanding is that People of Praise make ‘covenants’ that are akin to religious ‘professions’ or ‘vows.’ They aren’t ‘loyalty oaths,’ a phrase which seems designed to suggest irrational commitment,” said Chad Pecknold, a theologian at Catholic University.
Mary Hasson, who works on Catholic issues for the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, sent her children to Trinity School in Falls Church, Va., one of several schools that People of Praise operates across the country. Hasson is married to Seamus Hasson, founder of The Becket Fund, a non-profit law firm focused on religious liberty issues.
“People who are familiar with Catholic theology are familiar with spiritual mentors, someone who helps you to grow,” Hasson said. “What I see in practice is people who take their Christian faith and their intention to share life with others seriously. There is a tremendous ethic of serving and caring for others. Someone who loses a job, or gets sick, members are there, that’s what it looks like to me as someone who is looking from outside.”
A founding member, Adrian Reimers, left People of Praise and wrote a manuscript that paints the group in its early years as having a powerful — in his view, dangerous — influence over its members. The 1997 document talks about how people who leave are described as having a “quitting spirit” and that leaving the group is like adultery.
Coral Anika Theill told the National Catholic Reporter that her five-year stint in the group in Oregon “still traumatizes me to this day.” She said she suffered under conservative ideology, strict gender-role divisions that emphasized women’s submission, and secrecy toward outsiders.
She also said that her time there — in the 1970s and ’80s — may have been atypical and extreme and that there may be regional differences.
Lent said there is no obligation to do what your guide, or “head” says, and he disputed that members look askance at people who leave. He said there is a specific promise members read and make to one another, but he wouldn’t share it. “There’s nothing strange about it…. We’re just telling one another: ‘I’m going to be there.’ We’re committing our lives to one another in the Lord,” he said. “I don’t think we have to publicize everything.”
Members contribute at least 5 percent of their gross income to the community, Lent said. Their commitment also may mean choosing to not take a promotion or other job in a city that does not have a People of Praise branch.
Lent said the group is politically and theologically diverse. Asked if members hold particular views about hot-button issues like abortion and gender, he said they believe life begins at conception, and that men are the leaders of the home, but “that doesn’t mean your preferences [as men] win. No one should be dominating.”
Whether the group’s character matters to Barrett’s potential candidacy for the Supreme Court is a divisive question.
Charles Camosy, an ethicist at the Catholic school Fordham University who often writes against abortion, said it’s legitimate to ask questions about People of Praise. “Maybe there is something scary and weird there. But, of course, all people of faith take some oath, some profession of faith.”
Ross Douthat, a popular conservative Catholic writer, tweeted that fellow conservative Christians weren’t confessing their own double standard. Yes, he tweeted, there is some bigotry at work in how some progressives talk about Barrett’s faith. “But if we’re being honest, it’s that faith and not just her impressive credentials and judicial philosophy that makes her attractive to many conservatives.”
While Faggioli isn’t an expert on People of Praise, he said the bigger lay-led movements, as well as well-known associations of nuns or priests, are different from Barrett’s community and other lesser-known lay-led groups in a key way: “their commitments were much more transparent.”
“I believe they are a Christian community. And probably much better Christians than I am. The problem is they seem too casual about the fact that if you have a position in service of the public there is a right to know what kind of commitments you have,” Faggioli said.
The conversation around Barrett evokes memories of the early 20th century, when Catholic politicians like Al Smith — and later, John F. Kennedy — had to tell voters that they wouldn’t have divided loyalties between their bishop and their constituents. Early Jewish Supreme Court justices including Louis Brandeis and Benjamin Cardozo were questioned about their religion, Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett said.
But such questions have become rare at the Supreme Court. Before Antonin Scalia’s death, in fact, the entire court was made up of Catholics (six) and Jews (three).
“It strikes me to ask questions, to draw inferences, to make insinuations about people’s personal religious beliefs as opposed to their scholarly work and professional activity is not appropriate,” said Garnett, a friend of Barrett who wrote an op-ed this week praising her legal acumen.
He noted that Feinstein’s question started with an article that Barrett wrote, in which she questioned whether Catholic judges might have to recuse themselves if certain issues came up that conflicted with their faith — specifically, the death penalty. “It’s always fair to ask a scholar about his or her writing. I think when you start asking people about how they live their spiritual lives … that kind of question does take us back to the old-school paranoia about Catholics, that their priests or the pope would tell them what to do in politics and therefore they couldn’t be trusted,” he said.
Garnett is not a member of People of Praise but also sent his child to one of the group’s schools.
Other religious-liberty watchers pointed out that it is not just liberals nowadays who raise questions about political figures’ faith. Trump often repeated the falsehood that Barack Obama was Muslim and thus suspect as a public official, and current Housing and Urban Development Department head Ben Carson said as a presidential candidate that a Muslim shouldn’t be president.