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Amy Coney Barrett and the Role of Conscience

September 27, 2020


In 1873, St. John Henry Newman found himself in a public quarrel with Prime Minister William Gladstone. At issue was the Irish University Bill, which allowed Catholics to matriculate at Irish universities, but would have also destroyed plans to create a Catholic university. The Catholic hierarchy in Ireland opposed the bill, which failed and brought down the government, and Newman became a target of the fallen Prime Minister’s criticism. In response, in 1875 Newman published his “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” which reflects upon Gladstone’s central concern: “Can Catholics be trustworthy subjects of the State?”

The question Newman answers in his text has remained a source of tension in modern liberal societies. In the presidential campaign of 1960, John F. Kennedy was questioned about whether he would take marching orders from the Pope. The lore in my own family is that my Baptist grandmother, the daughter of strong southern Democrats, was deeply conflicted about how to vote that year. Kennedy was forced to reassure my Gammy and the rest of the country, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic.”

Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic mother of seven, has been nominated to fill the vacancy on the United States Supreme Court. A former professor at Notre Dame, Barrett has been on the president’s list of possible Supreme Court nominees since shortly after she joined the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Five of the current justices are also Catholic, but in 2017 Barrett was singled out at her confirmation hearing for the Seventh Circuit by Senator Diane Feinstein, who remarked, “the dogma lives loudly within you, and that is a concern.”

Now that Barrett has been nominated for the highest judicial office in America, there are renewed worries that if confirmed, her Catholic faith will overtake her respect for the law when it comes to the “big issues,” that Senator Feinstein reminded Barrett, “large numbers of people have fought for, for years in this country.” More recently we have learned that Barrett once said her “legal career is a means to an end…and that end is building the kingdom of God.” Some opponents of Barrett’s appointment find her a shocking contrast to the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whose seat she would fill. The issue, for some, is that in place of a zealous progressive reformer, there would be a zealous theocrat.

No matter what our particular political positions are, we should all be alarmed by bad-faith critiques of Barrett’s piety. Newman’s “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” may help us understand why.

Of the many relevant matters Newman discusses in his response to Gladstone, two issues stand out in our present circumstances. First is the straightforward matter of spiritual authority. Gladstone’s concern about Catholics’ civic loyalty belies his real belief that religion should be consigned to the private sphere of individual meaning-making. As Lord Birkenhead says in Chariots of Fire, “In my day it was king first, God after.” Newman reminds us, however, that “the Gospel is no mere beautiful and deep sentiment or subjective opinion, but a substantive message from above, guarded and preserved in a visible polity.” He therefore says of Gladstone, “It is not the existence of a Pope, but of a Church; which is his aversion.”

Barrett is a Church member, as well as a member of a parachurch charismatic group called People of Praise – a double threat; and maybe this time she will be pressed about the activities of People of Praise rather than her acceptance of the Catechism. Either way, the aversion to the priority of a received faith in the public square is even larger than it was in Newman’s day. As Alastair Campbell, an advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair, once quipped, “We don’t do God.” And yet, Newman reminds us that all people at all times are religious, and in the absence of God, we will depend on false gods in our decision-making. In the case of Catholics, Newman knew that if we ignore or reject the Pope’s claim on our obedience, we may instead “dress up any civil functionary in the vestments of divine authority.”

Newman also teaches us that a Catholic’s rootedness in divine authority opens the door to the authentic expression of a free Conscience (a word he deliberately capitalizes). In fact, Newman argues, although the Catholic faith can leave no part of a one’s personal or professional life untouched, a Catholic’s Conscience is free to the point of requiring absolute obedience to no one, including the Pope himself. As examples, the Pope could not compel any Catholic under penalty of sin to fight in a war or rule in any particular way in a court case. Newman insists that the Pope will have no “moral and mental slaves.” In comments like those from Senator Feinstein in 2017, however, we do encounter a plea for absolute obedience to certain tenets of progressive modernity.

Who, we may wonder, is the real theocrat? If a strong, free-thinking Catholic woman like Amy Coney Barrett is not supposed to be an automaton for the Pope, why would we expect her to be one for the secular order?

Newman tells us that in after-dinner toasts, he drinks “to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” If Barrett makes it through her confirmation hearings, she may choose to raise a glass with the same intentions. We may raise ours to that complicated idea of freedom, and to renewed hope that our loud dogma and striving for the kingdom of God have a place in today’s America too.

Photo by Rachel Malehorn. (CC By 3.0)