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As Judge Amy Coney Barrett faces more questions from senators on Wednesday in the third day of hearings for her nomination to the Supreme Court, her religion has become a point of contention.
Barrett's faith is a key part of her appeal to conservative supporters, as well as a cause for concern among some who oppose her nomination. Barrett is a Catholic, but she's also affiliated with People of Praise — a small Catholic charismatic group that has drawn criticism from some former members who say it treats women as subservient to men.
Francis X. Rocca, Vatican correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, has been looking into the “so-called covenant community,” which began within the Catholic charismatic renewal of the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
The Catholic charismatic movement embraced some principles of Pentecostalism, a Protestant Christian movement that believes in salvation, spiritual gifts and baptism.
People of Praise, a tightly knit group, has about 1,750 members, Rocca says. Over the years, they have been known to live together at times, he says, adding they normally meet once a week and contribute 5% of their income to the group.
People of Praise was born in 1971 in South Bend, Indiana, where the University of Notre Dame is located. Similar to Pentecostalism, members are said to embrace physical forms of worship, such as speaking in tongues, faith healing and baptism.
“These are gifts of the Holy Spirit, they say. And so there is this attempt in the 20th century, first among Protestants and then also among Catholics, to recover this,” he says.
Members also pledge to the community's covenant — something former members have come out against, claiming husbands are enforced as heads of the household, or “heads.”
One former member wrote a book criticizing the group’s gender roles, saying women were seen secondary to men, Rocca says.
“If you talk to the members now, they will say that that's not true. They will say that it is true that they believe in the biblical idea that the husband is the head of the household,” he says.
In practice, members say that means final family decisions fall on the husband, he says, but only after things are worked out through dialog with both spouses.
Women leaders in People of Praise, once called “handmaids” after the Bible’s description of the Virgin Mary, are assigned to look after other women in the group. They changed their terminology after the dystopian “The Handmaid’s Tale” television series gained popularity in 2018, he says.
Women leaders act as advisors to other female members, he says. Since the group believes that “everyone has a head,” even husbands, they view the concept of heads as a mentorship, Rocca explains.
Members of People of Praise are no strangers to political scrutiny. Democrats have questioned Barrett about her faith and ability to make decisions in past hearings. During Barrett’s Court of Appeals confirmation hearing in 2017, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Barrett’s religious “dogma lives loudly within” her.
This time around, during the Supreme Court nomination hearings, senators might go a little easier since many Americans feel that faith is a personal part of life. The caveat to that is when faith may be enacted in policy or making law — the purpose of the Supreme Court.
Barrett has never publicly disclosed her affiliation. She was pictured in the group’s “Vine and Branches” magazine in 2006, The Wall Street Journal reports.
In the current nomination hearings, senators have questioned Barrett on issues that might conflict with her Catholic faith, such as her stance on Roe v. Wade and abortion rights.
Based on Rocca’s conversations with People of Praise members, he says Barrett would argue that she’ll make her own rulings based on the law, not based on advice from a head.
“These are people with whom you talk about life decisions and they try to help you to discern what God wants for you,” he says. “It wouldn't be the kind of person who would be telling the person he or she is advising how to do her job.”
This segment aired on October 14, 2020.
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