September 25, 2020

Amy Coney Barrett as a person of character

By Charles A. "Chuck" Donovan *
Amy Coney Barrett. Photo courtesy of the Notre Dame Law School
Amy Coney Barrett. Photo courtesy of the Notre Dame Law School

For decades advocates of legal abortion have attempted to paint opposition to the practice as rooted in – even solely in – religious belief systems. The effort has been a bit haphazard, even if the motive is clear.  If attitudes about abortion are primarily about religious teachings, then the issue would seem to be covered by the First Amendment and Congress and the courts would be dutybound to respect religious differences and uphold permissive abortion laws. Opponents of those laws could rightly be portrayed as religious zealots bent on enforcing their spiritual insights on their fellow Americans.

This line of argument came into sharp relief with President Trump’s nomination of former Notre Dame Law School professor Amy Coney Barrett to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. During the tense Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on her nomination in September 2017, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California famously told Barrett, “You are controversial. You have a long history of believing that your religious beliefs should prevail.” The Senator went on: “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.”

Sen. Feinstein was widely criticized for the remarks against a highly regarded Catholic lawyer and scholar. Less attention was given, however, to the fundamental, because thornier, question regarding the way religious convictions can and do influence moral standards and sensitivities. The giveaway in Feinstein’s comments was the reference to dogma, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” Calling a political or religious actor “dogmatic” is seldom a compliment.

In Barrett’s case, Feinstein’s accusation was doubly misplaced. Barrett’s brilliance as a teacher of the law and an author of review articles and, for the last three years, circuit court opinions demonstrates that she understands the duties of a judge in interpreting and applying the law. Remarks she gave in which she spurred Feinstein’s ire were distorted beyond all plain meaning. In a speech to the Notre Dame Law School class of 2006, then-Prof. Barrett urged the graduates to recognize that a “legal career is but a means to an end, and … that end is building the kingdom of God. … If 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.”

The context of the remarks included rejecting the notion that the legal profession is merely a steppingstone to wealth or power. She specifically cited how to handle moving to another city merely as a means of moving up, rather than weighing other values in such decisions. In case her point was missed, she responded in the same Judiciary Committee hearing to a Catholic Senator that she was a “faithful Catholic” but would “stress my personal church affiliation or my religious belief would not bear on the discharge of my duties as a judge.”   

The truth is that most people of character – who practice the traits of honesty, respect for what belongs to others, concern for the vulnerable and the weak – are responding to principles laid out in the tenets of religion. We should want individuals in public life who hold to the tenets of the Ten Commandments, and acknowledge that their doing so is a boon to our common life and not the mark of religious overreach.

For those who admire Judge Barrett, there is one further point. The debate over the legal status of abortion did not begin in 1973. It did not end there. From the time of Hippocrates, four centuries before the Common Era, physicians in the Western world made solemn pledges upon commencing their careers. Those pledges included the concepts of medical confidentiality and non-maleficence. Physicians of all backgrounds, down to the modern era, also pledged to avoid abortion and the administration of poisons. The Hippocratic Oath speaks not to any dogmas, but to an ethic of reason and, one could say, empathy.

Amy Coney Barrett embodies such understandings in her faith, her private life, and her career. She would be a wonderful addition to the Supreme Court.

Charles A. “Chuck” Donovan is president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

Latest Videos:

Follow us: