The strange strategy of the progressive media regarding Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a hard-right Federalist Society Catholic jurist whose notions of sex/gender relations are demonstrably medieval, is both inept and counterproductive.
It bears mentioning here that Elizabeth Bruenig, a liberal (Catholic) columnist at the New York Times, wrote the following in a September 26 column — a line of argument I can imagine will be echoed by liberal Catholics in other venues:
[In recent court cases regarding the Affordable Care Act and LGBTQQIAA+ rights,] Catholic institutions have asked for exemptions to various laws, citing the First Amendment. In Lockean terms, they have argued that business putatively conducted in the civil sphere actually belongs to the religious one, and thus ought not be subject to the rules of civil government. They are staking out and reclaiming jurisdictional territory from the state, in other words, and each victory adds ground to the church’s domain… It’s into this context that Judge Barrett steps as a piously Catholic woman and a Supreme Court nominee. She neither created this situation nor will she end it; no justice placed on the bench could. It has a life and a legacy bigger than any individual cast in it by history, and it seems poised to keep us in shocking, surprising times.
I would argue this is a tremendously mistaken and ahistorical political diagnosis. Judge Barrett is not just some innocuous Catholic jurist thrust into the political limelight by the forces of history, she represents a theocracy-inclined formation determined to impose an extreme religious dogma onto the secular realm.
I was raised in a conservative New England Irish Catholic milieu during the 1990s and 2000s, attending both parochial elementary school and an all-male Catholic prep school. I understand quite well the ideological and theological nuances of the culture Judge Barrett emerges from because I am in the process of decolonizing my mind from its imposition upon my consciousness.
When George W. Bush was appointing Catholic Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts, the right wing Catholic press and its gendarmes in the theological propaganda outlets were boasting about the imposition of this ideological system onto the highest court in the land.
Instead of focusing on the blatantly obvious, that Judge Barrett is only adamantly opposed to legalized abortion, the conversation should also focus on her opinions about limiting access to female contraceptives as well as retrograde views about Jews and other non-Christians.
Birth Control Isn’t Abortion!
While Pew Research Center polling indicates “61% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 38% say it should be illegal in all or most cases,” contraception is far more popular. Power to Decide, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing teen and unwanted pregnancy, reports:
A large majority of all adults (86%)—regardless of race/ethnicity, region, and political affiliation—support access to all methods of contraception. This includes 83% of adults in the South, and 87% in the Northeast, North Central region, and West. It also includes 86% of White adults, 94% of Black adults and 88% of Latino adults, as well as 93% of Democrats, 75% of Republicans, and 87% of Independents.
By contrast, one needs to merely visit one of the multiple Catholic web media outlets to encounter this kind of verbiage demonstrating an opposing view:
The birth control pill is used by over 10 million women in the US today and about 4 million of those are under age 25. The Pill consists of a combination of two types of artificial hormones called estrogens and progestins. It works by inhibiting ovulation and sperm transport and by changing the lining of the inside of a woman’s uterus (called the endometrium) so that if the woman does conceive she will often have an early abortion… It is estimated that women experience at least one very early abortion for every year that they are on the Pill. Both pro-abortion and pro-life groups acknowledge that the Pill causes early abortions. [Emphasis added.]
In an October 1, 2020 report for The Guardian newspaper, Stephanie Kirchgaessner reported in “Revealed: Amy Coney Barrett Supported Group That Said Life Begins at Fertilization” that Judge Barret previously signed a newspaper advertisement produced by St. Joseph County Right to Life affirming these views and other extreme notions:
…Jackie Appleman, the executive director of St Joseph County Right to Life, said that the organization’s view on life beginning at fertilization – as opposed to the implantation of an embryo or a fetus being viable – did have implications for in vitro fertilization, which usually involves the creation of multiple embryos. “Whether embryos are implanted in the woman and then selectively reduced or it’s done in a petri dish and then discarded, you’re still ending a new human life at that point and we do oppose that,” Appleman said, adding that the discarding of embryos during the IVF process was equal to the act of having an abortion.
According to the St. Joseph County Right to Life website, “the organization certainly stands against those forms of birth control and contraception that are considered to be abortifacient.” It lists as “certain forms of birth control and contraception [that] do involve a risk of a post-fertilization abortion” traditional oral contraception, the Morning After pill, IUDs, progestin-only birth control pill aka ‘the minipill,’ the ortho evra trans-dermal patch, and depo-provera injections.
These statements are medicinally, scientifically, and factually untrue. These forms of contraception are conclusively not abortifacients. This claim to the contrary hinges on a formulation of Catholic theology disguised by scientific rhetoric that fundamentally misreads medical opinion in service of dogmatism. According to these extremists, a fringe presence with no substantial constituency in the medical community, any ovum that unites with a sperm gamete qualifies as a human being, ergo any type of contraception that prevents uterine implantation is a type of abortion. By contrast, the overwhelming majority of medical opinion conclusively states that pregnancy begins when a fertilized ovum is implanted into a woman’s uterus. This extremist mis-qualification renders female contraceptives on the same ethical and moral plane as abortion, a tenet that the vast majority of the United States does not and probably will never subscribe to.
These notions are also extraordinarily dangerous given the theological matrix informing the views of the Republican-appointed Catholic Supreme Court Justices, who have repeatedly invoked such nonsense in their legal opinions to favor the Church.
Bill Baird is longtime contraception and abortion rights activist who has won three Supreme Court victories pertaining to reproductive medicine. The first case, Eisenstadt v. Baird, universally legalized contraception for both unmarried and married people while establishing the landmark right to privacy precedent underwriting the Roe decision. “Barrett has claimed that she would respect precedent. However, last year she and other judges dissented in a case where my case Baird v. Bellotti [which grants minors the right to abortion] was cited and the premise upheld. So she did not respect precedent and won’t if Roe v. Wade is challenged.” The 88-year old activist forecasts that Judge Barrett’s confirmation will be “the last nail in the coffin” for reproductive rights that will cause the “death of countless women.”
“I think she is going to be an absolute nightmare. I think that this woman is one of the greatest threats to our democracy,” he said. “I have no quarrel with what anyone wants to believe. But I do believe no one has the right to impose that on a woman and make her go through a pregnancy against their will. So the doctrine that she dared spit out last year out of Indiana where she ruled on my case Baird v. Bellotti…she basically was saying minors, [really] nobody should have the right to an abortion because she’s saying in effect it’s murder. But I say that’s Catholic propaganda!”
All Jews Go to Hell
During his tenure on the Throne of St. Peter, now-Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI rolled back major policy measures of the prior 50 years that had sought to finally smother within the Catholic Church a noxious vein of of antisemitism that has somehow survived first the Nazi holocaust and then the Second Vatican Council. These were subtle changes, unnoticed by many owing to the shock-and-awe news cycle’s hyper-concentration on the emerging clergy pedophilia scandal, but they had serious impacts.
We should not mince words here, Benedict XVI at least should be described as sympathetic to fascistic forces within the wider Catholic polity, if not an outright apologist for the theological tenets that underwrote the Nazi genocide and European pogroms before them. The psycho-sexual dynamics of these views, including an instrumentation of and hyper-focused effort to control women’s reproductive health, bears all the hallmarks of the fascist patriarchal vision. It is a worldview of the subordinated feminine rendered into a brood mare producing laborers for service of the corporate state.
Benedict’s first distinct intervention pertained to a more liberal allowance for the performance of the Latin Mass, a fetish object for right wing “Traditionalist” Catholics. The argument of the Traditionalists claims the Second Vatican Council was responsible for “the Sixties,” birthing to humanity a satanic toleration for promiscuity, contraception, homosexuality, and abortion. As recently as April 2019, the ghoulish Pope Emeritus emerged from his retirement with a strange epistle blaming the pedophile scandal on fags, potheads, and infanticide rather than the person who regularly failed to properly remove from ministry sex offender priests (probably because that person was named Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI). The Second Vatican Council allowed for the Mass to be said in the vernacular, meaning priests could start speaking the prayers in their local parish language rather than Medieval Latin. But it also deleted from the Missal prayers placing blame for Christ’s death eternally upon the Jews.
Catholic apologists will protest and claim that the Latin Mass has been revised to remove the adjective “perfidious” from the prayers, meaning that the offending passage is gone. But this is not true. Instead, the prayer recited on Good Friday now reads:
Let us also pray for the Jews: That our God and Lord may illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men. Almighty and eternal God, who want that all men be saved and come to the recognition of the truth, propitiously grant that even as the fullness of the peoples enters Thy Church, all Israel be saved. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
In theological terms, this prayer is still grounded in the argument that Jews are damned to Hell unless they accept Christ as their Lord and Savior. There are layers upon layers of antisemitism inscribed into such logic, including the imposition of Christian afterlife onto Jewish theology and the idea that Jewish theology is not “truth,” ergo that Jews are both deceived and deceivers.
Over the course of my entire life in the Catholic Church, including almost a decade as an altar server, this sort of chauvinism was never manifest in the vernacular Mass. The Latin Mass is not merely a vehicle for nostalgics seeking a theological Happy Days episode, it is in fact a vehicle for the retrograde elements of Catholic theology which condemn Jews to a perennial status as Christ killers.
Since Vatican II, there has been a certain rhetorical shift around Judaism that abandons some of the overt animus manifest in the prior expressions of this theology. Yet as made clear by the aforementioned liturgical quotation, this still functions as a form of philo-Semitism, itself a variation of racism underwritten with theological precepts.
The Second Vatican Council was a struggle within the hierarchy to end the way that Church theology not only supports but in some instances actively promotes willing collaboration with white nationalism and colonial imperialism. This theological animosity against Jews needs to be understood as the catalytic genesis, the primum movens, of European racial slavery and conquest of the Global South. The logic of Jews as the unbaptized in need of salvation underwrites later theological tenets, like the Doctrine of Discovery that was a cornerstone of the legal argument for the settler colonialism in the Americas. The unfortunate historical reality is that the forces that sought to reform the Church via the Council were systematically defeated over the next half century, by first Pope John Paul II and then Benedict XVI.
Benedict’s second intervention, perhaps just as disturbing, was reversing the excommunications on schismatic bishops tutored by Marcel Lefebvre and his Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). A strange moment in late 20th century Catholic theological squabbles, Lefebvre was a racist demagogue who:
-Endorsed Vichy France’s collaboration with Nazi Germany;
-Made public apologias for the regimes of Portugual’s Antonio Salazar and Spain’s Francisco Franco;
-Celebrated Jean-Marie Le Pen’s fascist National Front party;
-Offered xenophobic pronouncements about Muslim immigration, going so far as being fined in 1990 for saying in a public address “It is your wives, your daughters, your children who will be kidnapped and dragged off to a certain kind of places [sic] as they exist in Casablanca.”
Lefebvre was not excommunicated from Rome in 1988 because of these grotesque pronouncements. (John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger were distracted with their sacrifice of Liberation Theology priests and parishioners to Latin American death squads…) Rather, Lefebvre was ousted for challenging the authority of Rome, a tawdry internecine squabble between two geriatrics with a socio-political vision of civilization grounded in the 12th century.
Despite this excommunication, Lefebvre’s SSPX remained in communion with Rome and has been one hub of a reactionary element in the Catholic polity that has multiple outposts in the United States, including several in the area near the Notre Dame Law School campus where Judge Barrett first obtained her JD and now lectures. Judge Barrett clerked for Antonin Scalia, who likewise was a Traditionalist.
It is hard to make the conclusive accusation that Judge Barrett is either a “fellow traveler” of SSPX or that she has attended one of their Masses.
Instead we must understand that she emerges from a “united front” of reactionary Traditionalist Catholicism that includes SSPX, the International Order of St. Hubertus that Justice Scalia was hunting with on the day of his death in 2016, Mel Gibson’s “independent” church in Malibu, the infamous Opus Dei, and others that have created a near-hegemonic theology within American Roman Catholicism over the past half century. Despite their differences, they have united in excising from the body politic the Liberation Theology of the Berrigan Brothers and others who, inspired by Vatican II and then the human rights struggles of the Sixties, sought to turn the Church towards the theology of the Prince of Peace rather than a God of War’s Prosperity Gospel.
Included in that matrix as a necessary cornerstone is the imperative towards a manifestation of the diabolical Other, in the first case the Jews and next, as demonstrated by Lefebvre, Africans.
For over half a century, antisemitism has been weaponized against the Left in defense of Zionism and Israel. A corollary of this phenomena is the hyperbolic accusation of anti-Catholicism lifted repeatedly when anyone with half a brain in their head (or a quarter of one, in the case of Sen. Dianne Feinstein) questions the militant anti-choice stance of Traditionalist Catholics who blur the line between Church and state.
The coincidence with the weaponization of antisemitism is useful because we perhaps should recognize the Traditionalist project as it exists in the neoliberal era as the Zionism of the Catholic Church. There undeniably are significant divergences, particularly in how the Catholic Church is responsible for the genesis of settler colonialism in the Western hemisphere while by contrast Zionism modeled itself on the United States project.
But, like Zionism, Traditionalism has reached its zenith in the aftermath of Catholic assimilation into the polity of whiteness following World War II. It is adamantly opposed to the currents within the religious minority that aspired for more progressive politics. Whereas Zionism was opposed to various stands of internationalism in historic Palestine, Traditionalism opposed the Preferential Option of the Poor that emerged within the matrix of Liberation Theology in the Global South (the Roman Catholic Church was already an internationalist body for several thousand years by the 1980s). In the new century, both Zionism and Traditionalism have abandoned all pretenses of egalitarianism and offered a theological imprimatur as economic inequality has skyrocketed in their respective societies. Both have been ready to endorse imperialist expansion in the Middle East and in fact converged several times over the past two decades, as demonstrated by the war on Iraq. And both share a deeply misogynist cult of the body, though Traditionalism admittedly does diverge with certain pro-choice tendencies within Zionism.
Despite its claims to the contrary, Traditionalism does not have a corner on what defines Catholicism or being a faithful communicant. Instead, Catholic theology mandates that the individual conscience is the ultimate arbiter of morality. Traditionalists happily ignore that tenet when it contravenes their diktats. In this sense, they are not only reactionaries, they are heretics.
That final point is the key to understanding the debate around Judge Barrett’s faith. She is by no means an exemplar of anything except an extremist tendency in a polity whose moral opinions and ideological positions are far more diverse than otherwise suggested by the mainstream press. While it is undeniable that Catholicism does dictate that a faithful communicant should be morally opposed to abortion, it is a false tautology to claim that such an opposition is by default equivalent to belief that all female contraceptives are abortifacients. Likewise, while the Church does proclaim that it holds a monopoly on salvation, this by no means requires subscription to retrograde forms of antisemitism, racism, and colonialism.
Claims to the contrary are a sin of omission.