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Amy Coney Barrett’s People of Praise faith group has had a complicated relationship to Catholicism

Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett listens during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 14. (Ken Cedeno/Pool/AP)
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Supporters of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett charge that questions about her faith are anti-Catholic. But the relationship between People of Praise — the small Christian community Barrett has belonged to since birth — and Catholics has not been seamless.

A drumbeat of members who have left since People of Praise’s founding in 1971 said they felt the group wasn’t sufficiently Catholic or had teachings or practices that went against the Church, according to letters they sent to bishops and interviews with The Washington Post.

People of Praise is an ecumenical lay group, although most of its members identify as Catholic. Barrett has not spoken about her Catholic faith or her lifetime membership in the People of Praise, and during her confirmation hearings, she sought to reassure lawmakers about her independence, saying she keeps her “personal moral religious views” distinct from the “task of applying law as a judge.”

The group’s spokesman, Sean Connolly, has declined interview requests about Barrett and would not confirm her membership. The group has removed many references to Barrett and her family from its website and declined requests to make most of its teachings public.

Her largely Republican supporters in Congress, however, brought up Barrett’s faith themselves during her Senate Judiciary Committee hearings this week, conflating questions raised about People of Praise with criticism of Catholicism.

"When you tell somebody that they’re too Catholic to be on the bench, when you tell them they’re going to be a Catholic judge, not an American judge, that’s bigotry,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said during Monday’s hearing.

People of Praise, which has about 1,700 members worldwide, is what’s called a “covenant community” and is not part of the Catholic Church. Its core is that members make commitments to one another, to shared values and practices and to submission to authority. It is the product of a period in American religion when big denominations like the Catholic Church were being rattled and transformed by the social upheaval of the 1960s. There were calls for more experiential faith with more contemporary music, deeper interpersonal connection and higher intensity. That period opened a discussion that’s still going on in the Catholic Church about how much transparency and power-sharing clergy are required to give, and who gets to define “Catholic.”

The “who we are” page on People of Praise’s website says members are expected to remain “faithful members of our own churches” and to follow their consciences, reason and “the teachings of their churches.”

For some Catholics, joining lay communities like People of Praise has resulted in a richer faith life. Barrett’s father, Mike Coney, is a deacon in Louisiana. In a 2018 letter to his parish in Metairie, La., he described why he and his wife joined People of Praise.

“We felt a call to live life in a close knit Christian community, one like that described in the Acts of the Apostles, one that would help form our children into good Christians and strengthen our marriage and family,” he wrote. “In this ecumenical community my faith has been nourished and my commitment to my friend Christ has grown deeper and stronger and has borne good fruit.”

People of Praise co-founder Kevin Ranaghan retired as a deacon in Indiana last year.

Amy Coney Barrett served as a ‘handmaid’ in Christian group People of Praise

But in letters to bishops, some former members of People of Praise have said the group’s practices led to a kind of authoritarianism, intense groupthink and gender dynamics that they saw as contradicting their Catholic faith. In those letters and in interviews with The Post, they recalled being told by group leaders not to speak in confidence during confession or to priests. Others believe some of the group’s teachings about women’s roles go against Catholic teachings.

In a 1985 letter to Bishop William McManus, Adrian Reimers, a founding People of Praise member, and his wife, Marie, wrote that People of Praise’s leaders were taking the group “in a way that deviates from sound Catholic teaching and practice and which is, in fact, harmful to people.” Leaders told some People of Praise members not to “take problems and questions” to priests in the confessional; Adrian was told it was unwise to “seek counsel and advice from priests,” the letters said.

The Reimers declined to comment for this article, except for Adrian saying he is concerned about anti-Catholic bias in the Barrett hearings.

In 1991, another former member, John Ferrone, wrote to ask then-bishop of Fort Wayne John D’Arcy to “deal with the community,” saying the group does “not represent most of the normal people involved in renewal” and that the “power leaders sought over others has corrupted” any initial desire to boost the Catholic Church.

D’Arcy and McManus have since died. It’s not clear what, if anything, Catholic clergy ever did in connection with the complaints. Dioceses contacted for this article declined to comment, except to say that as an ecumenical group, People of Praise is not part of the Church and, hence, they have no jurisdiction over them.

Connolly wrote in an email that he personally has always been encouraged by group leaders to participate in the sacraments — core rites of Catholicism that include confession. “Each person is always responsible for his or her own decisions, including decisions in their personal lives or careers, and no community member should ever violate his or her conscience,” he wrote.

He also shared a 2008 letter from Francis George, the former president of the U.S. bishops conference and Chicago’s archbishop, to a Washington state priest (who was in People of Praise) who wanted a letter of endorsement for the group’s website: “In my acquaintance with the People of Praise, I have found men and women dedicated to God and eager to seek and do His divine will. They are shaped by love of Holy Scripture, prayer and community; and the Church’s mission is richer for their presence,” reads George’s letter.

George helped a special group for men from the People of Praise who wanted to pursue becoming Catholic priests, Connolly said.

While wary initially, the Catholic Church has come to mostly embrace groups like People of Praise, said Thomas Csordas, an anthropologist at the University of California at San Diego who studies Catholic communities that are charismatic. Charismatic faith is more spirited, expressive and seeks concrete signs of the Holy Spirit, such as faith healing and speaking in tongues.

“Although they have this theologically radical blend of Pentecostalism and Catholicism, they have a socially conservative outlook. That’s one thing that has appealed to the church and allowed it to embrace them,” Csordas said. Embracing charismatic communities also allows the Church to “compete” in developing countries with Pentecostalism, he said.

Some bishops and priests still keep charismatic covenant groups at arm’s length, either because of discomfort with their worship style or because their authority structure requires submission to leaders that to some seems unhealthy.

“Some priests don’t like it or don’t allow it, and some bishops are still nervous for the same reasons — that this isn’t particularly Catholic or doesn’t match their spiritual style. Or because the prayer leader becomes much more possessive," said Tim Matovina, a theology professor at University of Notre Dame who specializes in faith and culture, including charismatic Catholicism. “All of a sudden [there is] a lay person who is not theologically trained but acts as if the Holy Spirit is speaking through them — their rival teaching can become a rival to the bishop. Whether they intend it or not, a personality cult can come into it.”

Pope Francis, who identifies with charismatic worship and has encouraged charismatic renewal, created a special liaison body for charismatic Catholics. Portland, Ore., Bishop Peter Smith, a member of the People of Praise, is the North American representative, Connolly said.

Francis also in 2014 warned new lay groups not to become abusive, telling them, “We need to resist the temptation of usurping individual freedom, of directing them without allowing for their growth."