Amy Coney Barrett is a conservative. She’s also a Roman Catholic. If, as expected, Senate Republicans confirm her as President Donald Trump’s nominee to fill the seat of late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it could represent an enormous victory for conservatives. It would further solidify Republican control of the judicial branch and pose an impediment to Democratic rule, even if Democrats seize control of both the legislative and executive branches in just three weeks.
With so much on the line ― including the future of the Affordable Care Act, reproductive health care and LGBTQ rights ― some media coverage has examined Barrett’s religious beliefs and practices, exploring whether her deep faith would dictate the outcome of cases that might come before her in court.
Barrett has lived her life largely within Catholic environments. Until Trump nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in 2017, she was a professor at Notre Dame Law School, where she spoke at events held by student groups that opposed abortion rights and signed a newspaper advertisement opposing “abortion on demand.”
In Barrett’s confirmation hearing so far this week, Democrats have largely avoided questions directly related to Barrett’s faith. Republicans have signaled that they’re ready to pounce on any such lines of questioning, and a botched question from Sen. Dianne Feinstein during Barrett’s 2017 confirmation hearing ― in which the California Democrat said “the dogma lives loudly within” Barrett ― has since become a rallying cry for Catholic conservatives.
Catholic social teaching encompasses a wide range of issues in the political realm. But in modern political history, often due to the choices of the church’s leadership in America, the enormously broad scope of Catholic social teaching is often boiled down to a single political issue: the legal status of abortion.
I spoke with Stephen Schneck, a former professor at the Catholic University of America whom I covered during my time as an editor for the student newspaper. Schneck is a former director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies (previously known as the Life Cycle Institute), and he was on the White House Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during former President Barack Obama’s administration. Schneck is supporting former Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 election and serves as the national co-chair of Catholics for Biden.
We discussed Catholic social teaching, how the church’s messaging has shifted under Pope Francis, the history of anti-Catholicism in American political life, and how he thinks Democrats should approach (or avoid) issues pertaining to Barrett’s faith.
One thing you said [in 2009] that stuck with me is that there’s nothing like Catholic social teaching that makes both Republicans and Democrats cranky. We know that Catholic social teaching on abortion has been an issue for Catholic Democrats going back decades, so maybe for readers you could explain some of those Catholic social teachings that make Republicans cranky.
It’s a long list. Care for creation — in other words, you know, ecological concerns about climate change and so forth. The death penalty. Under Pope Francis, the Catechism itself has been changed so that Catholics are no longer allowed to support the death penalty.
Where do I go? The criticisms that Catholic social teaching has really launched for decades ― from Rerum Novarum [“Of Revolutionary Change” (1891)] to Quadragesimo Anno [“In the 40th Year” (1931)] to some of the most recent statements by Pope Francis ― challenging the nature of the capitalist economic order.
We could talk about the fact that at least since the end of the 19th century, the Catholic Church has insisted on the importance of labor unions and the ability to organize labor in all sorts of circumstances in every country, and so on and so forth.
We could talk about [how] policymaking should be preferencing the needs of the most oppressed, the poorest, the most vulnerable people. These things should be at the top of our list when we’re thinking about public policy needs. Every public policy should be assessed from our concern for the poorest and most vulnerable and most marginalized populations. And on and on.
It’s a really, really long list, and I’m not even beginning to scratch the surface. The absolute right to health care. The idea that leaders should be servants rather than masters. I don’t know where to begin, it’s a long list.
Given the importance of all those issues, how did we get to a place where, you know, so many Catholics and so many Americans see the criminalization of abortion as the only issue of importance to the church?
Actually, I don’t think that’s true. It’s difficult to say who counts as the church here, but if you look at the bishops’ guide for plumbing consciences before an election year ― their so-called Faithful Citizenship guide that came out several years ago but which has been refreshed several times ― it’s quite clear that Catholics are supposed to be thinking about all these issues and not just abortion.
And I think if you look at the numbers, the polling on Catholics across the United States, you see that Catholics are concerned about the economy and Catholics are concerned about health care. Catholics are concerned about all of the things that other Americans are concerned about as well. It’s too bad that they’re often ― by both the left and the right ― somehow treated as single-issue voters.
Do you think that the American bishops have devoted too much time to the issue of abortion at the expense of these key Catholic social teaching issues?
It’s not my place to actually criticize our bishops, but I would say that if you look at what bishops around the world apart from the United States are talking about in terms of public policy in their communities, it seems that in the United States, in comparison, our bishops talk about abortion much more than, say, the bishops in Asia or the bishops in Latin America or the bishops in Africa or the bishops in Europe.
I think that just shows some peculiarities about the church in the United States ... and the polarized politics of the United States.
How much does the makeup of the population of American Catholics influence what the bishops are doing in the United States compared to in other countries? American Catholics are, at this point in time in history, generally speaking, more economically advantaged than the populations in other countries that are primarily Catholic.
Catholics in the United States have been so thoroughly assimilated into American culture that, I would say for the vast majority of American Catholics, they look at politics through partisan lenses and their Catholic faith actually doesn’t weigh very much.
It’s a chicken-or-egg argument. Are right-wing Catholics in the United States focused on abortion because it’s an issue for the Republican Party, or are they focused on abortion because it’s an issue for the Catholic Church? And similarly, we could say just the reverse. Are left-leaning Catholics in the United States interested in topics like capital punishment because they’re driven by the concerns of their church, or are they more driven by the politics of the Democratic Party?
I think that these are legitimate questions. But I think that’s really what’s distinctive about Catholics in America — that we have become so assimilated in American culture and society that, by and large, if you look at polling of American Catholics, on any issue, it pretty much mirrors that of the general population.
I think this is something worthy of a lot more research, but it sure seems to me that we’re driven more by our domestic kind of American outlook ― whether it’s Republican or Democrat, blue state or red state ― than we’re driven by the actual church teachings on these issues.
Given what you said about assimilation of American Catholics, I was wondering if you could speak to the history of anti-Catholicism in American politics. It was obviously this major issue for the late President John F. Kennedy 60 years ago, but it seems like we’re in a much different place now.
Well the history, of course, is a dark one, and anti-Catholicism goes back much before the American founding. Many of these founders and framers whose original writings and original canon [Barrett] wants to decipher were profoundly anti-Catholic.
It goes way back. We could talk through the 19th century about the know-nothings and “no Irish need apply” and all of the derogatory names for various Irish immigrant populations that came to the United States, or whether it’s Italians or Poles or whatever. It’s a long, long list.
Sometimes, it was very prominent. John F. Kennedy faced real, overt prejudice because of his Catholic faith, particularly in the American South and places like West Virginia, but not just there. That prejudice was in Oregon, that prejudice was all over.
One of the great triumphs of his presidency in a sense was to kind of normalize being a Catholic in the United States. We are citizens, too. We are part of the country too. Kennedy opened the way for people like Amy Coney Barrett and Joe Biden to be pursuing the offices that they’re pursuing right now.
How do you think the racial makeup of American Catholics influenced that? Obviously, the population of Hispanic and Latinx Catholics has expanded greatly in recent years. But overall, despite Catholics’ rich history in the civil rights era, the percentage of Black Catholics is much smaller than the general U.S. population. How did that help in terms of integration and assimilation into the American political scene?
It’s complicated. There’s a great book, for example, about how the Irish became white, which even though it’s talking about an ethnic group, it kind of gives you a sense of how, for a while, Catholics too were often viewed in if not overtly racial terms, in cognitive racial terms. Italians were presented as swarthy, and Irish were presented as ruddy. So there was kind of a racial dimension to the concerns about Catholics, too.
But no doubt it helped for Catholics with assimilation that Catholics’ skin color looked a lot like English skin color, looked a lot like the skin color of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, so their assimilation was quite a bit easier as a result.
It’s interesting to note places where there are large Black Catholic populations, like Louisiana and a few other places in the country. These were places that during Reconstruction time there was a way in which Black Catholics could practice their faith, and the church accommodated that. But the racial history involved in all of this is very complicated and has lots of little dark chapters.
So let’s talk about Judge Amy Coney Barrett. What have you made so far of media coverage of her faith?
I have to say I was disappointed initially. It seemed as if — and, you know, the Huffington Post is somewhat responsible for this, too — it seemed as if there was an effort to sensationalize her faith practices, and I thought that was beyond the pale. And, of course, your more conservative media outlets also sort of seized on her faith but used it as a way to create zingers against the left. So I’ve been disappointed that her faith has been kind of objectified and dragged into the political arena by both Republicans and Democrats.
As the Constitution makes clear, there can be no religious tests for public office in the United States. And so those questions, I think, are properly out of bounds, and that kind of sensationalizing just really, really has no place. But it has occurred. And it’s occurring today as I listen to several Republican senators. Even though the Democrats haven’t said a word about Judge Barrett’s faith, nevertheless, they’re bringing out those zingers that the Republican right brought up several weeks ago.
“Handmaiden,” for example, in Catholicism is a term of respect, like a servant of God. Is that what you’re sort of referring to in some of those instances?
You and I both know this really well, Ryan. The Magnificat begins with Mary describing herself as a handmaiden of the Lord. That sort of leadership is something that is very important for understanding how authority flows through Catholic theology.
So how do non-Catholic Democrats and the media — how do you think they should walk that line in terms of discussing Judge Barrett’s faith, you know, both critically and respectfully while also exploring issues of how it could affect the greater American public through her judicial rulings?
I think her faith is out of bounds, personally. And I would counsel all sides, whether it’s a Republican questioning her about whether her Catholic faith would affect her rulings on the death penalty or a Democrat questioning whether her Catholic faith would affect her rulings on abortion, I think all of those things are out of bounds and should not be asked.
I think that the questioning should stick with the judge’s record and with the judge’s writings. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to explore her judicial philosophy and the sources of her judicial philosophy, her textualism and originalist approach to a jurisprudence. I think those are perfectly legitimate topics. But religion, I think, is not appropriate. We should not be exploring her religious beliefs.
There’s been a considerable shift in Francis’ papacy on issues such as climate change and poverty ― some things you’ve mentioned before. Do you think that shift has translated as much to the United States? Do you think the American bishops are speaking out as vocally as Pope Francis has on those issues?
I’d say that Pope Francis is at the vanguard of this turn of the church toward becoming a church of and by and for the poor. That’s Pope Francis. In the appointment of new bishops to the United States, I’m just seeing tremendous appointments that are bringing that message to the United States.
But it’s going to take a while. Just as we see Pope Francis struggling to transform the Curia, the church in the United States is going to be a struggle to turn around. You don’t turn the Titanic on a dime, and I think that is in a sense what we’re looking at here. Lots of bishops aren’t completely on board with Pope Francis and still have some hesitation about some of the directions that he’s going, and I don’t think that’s going to go away anytime soon.
But I’m tremendously encouraged and feeling a great deal of hope based on recent efforts by our bishops. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ― and especially its social justice office ― has really done such a good job in bringing much more openness and appreciation of Pope Francis.
In terms of social justice, we see that brought up in terms of “social justice warriors” being used as this thing against the left, but talk about the importance of social justice to Catholicism.
Not just Catholicism, but I think Christianity. For me, the one passage in all of Scripture that kind of is at the heart of my faith is that passage at the beginning of the Gospel where Jesus has gone back to his hometown and returns to his home temple. He puts his hand out and draws out a scroll, and it’s a scroll from Isaiah. He reads it and the scroll, if you remember, Ryan, explains that the Redeemer will come to bring good news to the poor, to heal the blind and the lame, and to proclaim a jubilee for the Lord. That’s Jesus himself saying that, and then he goes on to say to his disciples that are around him, you are witnessing the manifestation of this right now.
That’s ultimately what I think Christianity is about. There’s much more that we’ve added and that I certainly affirm about Christianity, but it’s that bringing the good news to the poor. That is the heart and soul, I think, about what Christianity is all about, as Jesus himself seems to say in that passage. So for me, you can’t separate social justice from Christianity. It is Christianity.
I’m just somehow often surprised and shocked when Christians focus wrongly, I think, or overmuch on things that were added later, or interpretations that have been glossed on at the expense of grasping, you know, the really deep social justice message of the Gospels.
Switching back to the issue of abortion, I was hoping for non-Catholic readers if you could sort of explain what Catholic teaching is on the issue of abortion. Obviously Catholics believe it is morally wrong, but does the church’s position necessitate that you advocate for abortion’s immediate criminalization, or is advocating for public policy [like a stronger social safety net] that reduces the number of abortions a laudable short-term goal for Catholics?
The church’s position, of course, is that abortion is morally wrong. It’s defined as an intrinsic evil, which means that it’s always wrong and wrong in itself, in the same way that lying is always wrong and wrong in itself.
There’s nothing in moral theology that says how we’re supposed to deal with this in public life. So there’s nothing in moral theology that says we have to overturn Roe v. Wade. There’s nothing in moral theology that says we have to vote for this candidate or that candidate, that’s just not there.
What is there is it’s wrong and that we have an obligation to try to, in public life, find ways to minimize it, just as we should find ways to minimize lying or minimize theft or whatever. We have an onus on us to do that sort of thing. So we have a prudential capacity from God to figure out, well, what’s the best way to achieve that end? Some people, including a good number of church leaders in the United States, have decided that the best way right now to deal with this is to try to overturn Roe v. Wade, change the law that allows it, and perhaps to criminalize either people who receive it or people who provide it, or some combination of the two.
Within the realm of prudential reason in this regard, that could all be fine, too. But that needn’t be the only way in which we approach. And I have to say frankly that my approach, and this is based on practicality ― and I’m applying my prudential wisdom here as effectively as I can ― it seems to me clearly that the rate of abortion in the United States goes down when women have access to health care both for themselves and their children, when there’s adequate nutrition, [when] — I think this is very important — when housing is available to at-risk women, when education and jobs are available, and on and on and on.
In other words, we’re talking about social justice policies for the most part, and those kind of policies are associated, I think, clearly with decline in the number of abortions. So at the end of the Obama administration, the abortion numbers in the United States dropped to before what they were in 1973, what they were when Roe v. Wade became law of the land.
There are countries in the world where abortion is illegal, but nevertheless the rate of illegal abortions is higher than the abortion rate in the United States. So there’s no guarantee that overturning Roe v. Wade or criminalizing abortion in the United States is actually going to make this horrible thing go away.
Politicians in the United States that make such a big deal about ending abortion, in fact, never do, even when they control the presidency, both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, as we see recently. I really have the suspicion that for a lot of these politicians, they’re really not all that interested in trying to actually end it.
A major component of Catholic moral teaching is that the ends don’t justify the means, and I was curious if you sort of saw that in any way as applicable to the current posture of most of the pro-life movement: when you have, essentially, the thought of using the judicial system to implement policies supported by a minority of Americans through, potentially, means of deception ― hiding what your true views are or coating them in a legal posture ― to bring about the end of Roe v. Wade.
I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but I think you’re onto something. I don’t think I would put it in that way, but that seems right.
Given Catholic social teaching on contraception, what do you think the church can do to advocate for social policies that would reduce the number of abortions?
A good number of social justice policies work to reduce the number of abortions. There’s quite a bit of that going on — everything from, you know, paid family leave to helping the poor and health care for all. These are all positions that the church has advocated, and I think continuing to advocate for those is exactly where we’re going to have the greatest success in reducing numbers.
Vice President Joe Biden has spoken a lot about how his Catholic faith has informed his views, and I was curious, first of all, of what you think that says about the state of Catholics in America where you have Biden’s Catholicism being touted by this political campaign. And second of all, would you like to see Catholic Democrats speak more frankly about how their faith has informed their own moral and political views?
It’s funny, I’m from a generation of Catholics that thought we needed to kind of keep our faith quiet, “walk humbly with your God” sort of thing, and not lift it up like a battle flag, and to a certain extent I think I still am. I think we should be inspired by our faith. I think that our faith should inform our conscience. I don’t think we should weaponize our faith in politics.
That said, I’ve met Joe Biden a number of times in pretty private situations and I can attest his faith is real, and it’s something that matters to him and does inform his conscience.
The fact that you had somebody like Lou Holtz calling Biden a CINO ― Catholic in name only ― or even worse, President Trump saying that Joe Biden would be against God and against religion and against the Bible, I think given that sort of effort to suggest that Biden and people like Biden can’t be true Catholics, I think it’s utterly appropriate for the Biden campaign to be talking about the candidate’s faith, and I’m happy to talk about it myself.
Lastly, Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, came out with this recent encyclical. What kind of message do you think he’s sending to American Catholics, particularly given the timing of its release?
I think the timing is just the timing. I don’t think the pope intended for an October surprise. But the message, though, I think there is a kind of sense that ― not just for America, but the developed countries generally are a target for this message ― the real thrust of Fratelli Tutti is against radical individualism, coupled with economic materialism. In the pope’s mind, the world is in desperate need ― and he thinks that the COVID crisis brings this out so clearly ― of solidarity, of community. We need to find ways to overcome our polarization and overcome the economic self-interest and overcome the radical individualism, all the things that are separating us from one another and kind of forcing us into solipsistic, relativistic worlds of our own imagination.
These things need to be resisted and we need to find a way back to community, to belonging together, to togetherness, to unity. Not just as a nation. Not only does America need to find a way to overcome its polarizations and its divisions and its self-interest and so forth and come together, but really the pope is saying all of the developed worlds are being torn apart by these structural sins, and we need to overcome them and find solidarity, real fraternity, real community, the kind of community where we recognize within each other the face of God.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.