Letters | Tone deaf or bigoted?

 

LAMENTING THE LAMENTATIONS

The recent Commonweal editorial, “Bad Faith?” (October 6) only compounds the confusion it seeks to clarify.

The editorial addressed the recent confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett in the Senate. Barrett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, had been nominated to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

In the course of the hearings, Senator Feinstein of California infamously revealed to the nominee that “the dogma lives loudly within you,” while Senator Durbin of Illinois questioned the meaning of Barrett’s self-description as an “orthodox Catholic.”

Understandably, both the Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed their serious concern about the line of questioning and its implications. Jenkins’s letter to Feinstein called her questions “chilling.” The bishops feared the re-emergence of “anti-Catholic bigotry.”

The Commonweal editors, however, apodictically declare that “these charges don’t hold up to scrutiny.” They clearly lament the lamentations. Their own view is that “exploring the relationship between a judge’s religion and the discharge of her duties is perfectly legitimate.”

Now, let us even concede the point regarding how one’s religion might affect the discharge of public duties, and also acknowledge with the editors that the Catholic faith “does not separate morality from politics or law.” But in this delicate and crucial matter so much depends on the mode and manner of the inquiry. The medium does often convey the message. And the hostile manner of questioning lends credence to the critics’ suspicion that the message is one of anti-Catholic bias.

But then, suddenly, at the end of the editorial, there appears to be a reversal of course, or, at the least, a serious second thought. The editors confess that “Democrats continue to be tone deaf and often ignorant when it comes to religion. Feinstein’s formulation was particularly odd. It seemed almost designed to stir outrage, while illuminating precisely nothing.”

“Designed to stir outrage”! “Illuminating precisely nothing”! To repeat the word: precisely! Nor should Senator Durbin receive a pass. It confounds the imagination to picture him asking the adherent of another religion what she means by called herself “orthodox.”

Still, Commonweal’s attempt to justify the need, if not the mode, of such questioning, drives it to uncover an item from Professor Barrett’s past. It seems that in a 2006 address she had the temerity to tell Notre Dame’s Law School graduates that their careers were a ‘‘means to an end,” and that end was “building the kingdom of God.”

It is not clear what the editors find suspect about that exhortation. Perhaps an illegitimate intrusion of “private piety” upon the “public square?” Perhaps “Kingdom of God” smacks too much of “orthodox Catholic” sentiment? Perhaps even the theologically solid objection that it is God, not we, who builds God’s Kingdom? Whatever the basis of the editors’ concern they might ponder their own closing injunction to “Democrats:” you ought not “treat religious faith like a dangerous eccentricity.”

Rev. Robert Imbelli
Bronx, N. Y.

THE EDITORS REPLY:

We thank Fr. Imbelli for his response to our recent editorial, though we were surprised to find in his letter such a ringing endorsement of political correctness. After all, unlike some critics of Senators Feinstein and Durbin, Imbelli doesn’t claim that any constitutional scruples were violated; he never suggests that a “religious test” was being imposed on Amy Coney Barrett. Instead, Imbelli expresses his consternation at “the mode and manner of the inquiry,” which was “hostile.” These are “delicate” matters, he warns, a term perhaps better applied to the sensibilities of Barrett’s outraged defenders.

It’s worth noting that Feinstein was educated at Convent of the Sacred Heart High School in San Francisco, and that Durbin is Catholic himself—odd backgrounds for two anti-Catholic bigots. Isn’t hostility to Barrett’s nomination more likely attributable to the high stakes that surround judicial nominations, the stonewalling of Merrick Garland, and the Democratic Party’s commitment to abortion rights than to a simple hatred of the Catholic faith? Barrett’s nomination was voted out of committee, after all, and she is likely to be confirmed—an odd sign of coming persecution.

Imbelli questions our mentioning a speech Barrett gave in 2006, but isn’t what she said in it at least worth unpacking? Her comment about “building the kingdom of God” raises the issue of how she views the obligations and purposes of a legal career, and it’s absurd for a nominee to say such a thing and then, when nominated for a lifetime appointment to the federal judiciary, expect her not to be asked about it.

Unlike Imbelli, we see no contradiction between approving questions about the relationship of Barrett’s faith to her understanding of a judge’s role and wishing Feinstein especially had been more precise in asking them. That was the point of the editorial: to call for a better dialogue about such matters. We believe conservative Christians should be less defensive, less prone to cries of persecution, and less wary of explaining the ways faith contributes to our political life—especially since it is conservative Christians who most forcefully insist on the problems and perils of a “naked public square.” We also believe that Democrats should be better informed about religious beliefs, more open to the contributions religion can make to the common good, and that they should do their part to constructively participate in such dialogues. Meaningful democratic deliberation requires both “sides” to engage in this work. That will never happen if, every time the rough and tumble of politics proves indelicate, accusations of bigotry forestall debates about how best to do that.

Published in the November 10, 2017 issue: 
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