The idea of the separation of church and state has long been up for debate—and in recent years, landmark Supreme Court decisions have steadily weakened that purported separation. It’s called into question the personal moral compasses of the justices, often determined by their religious values.
The Court is made up of six Catholics, two Protestants, and one Jewish justice, though, as Gallup reported, this isn’t representative of the U.S. population. One of the Catholic justices, Amy Coney Barrett, is particularly known for her faith because of her rumored membership in the Christian group People of Praise and her position as a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, two conservatively aligned institutions. When she took the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s place on the Supreme Court in 2020, it sparked immediate chatter about the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade, a move she voted in favor of last year.
In fact, there’s another Catholic justice on the Court who has championed the right to choose, someone whose faith may even inform their sense of progressiveness: Sonia Sotomayor.
Dubbed a “cultural Catholic” when she was confirmed in 2009, Sotomayor is not openly devout. But Catholicism is still part of her identity and therefore informs her values (she was educated at a Catholic high school, after all).
The same can be said about Coney Barrett. Yet they often vote completely differently on issues that concern justice for the people. Their contrasting views may be the result of a very complicated religion, but there is more to Catholicism than one might think—even those who are baptized.
Privilege and the Catholic identity
Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a religious studies professor at Manhattan College, said the reason Sotomayor and Coney Barrett have polar opposite opinions is likely because of their upbringings.
While Coney Barrett is Catholic, her religious upbringing was deeply rooted in People of Praise, which purports to bring different Christian sects together to commit a “lifelong promise of love and service to fellow community members.” Christian religions have a commonality of believing in Jesus Christ as a savior, but their values and teachings vary.
People of Praise has branches across the country, and according to its website, members become deeply embedded in each other’s daily lives: “We work together, pray for one another, visit one another, share meals and offer one another gifts of money, goods and time in situations of need.”
Coney Barrett grew up in People of Praise’s New Orleans community. She’s not open about her membership in this group, though the New York Times found that she, her husband, and at least five of their seven children are confirmed members.
Jamie Manson, the president of Catholics for Choice, told Rewire News Group that growing up in that community automatically sets Coney Barrett apart from most Catholics in the United States.
“It’s Amy Coney Barrett who’s the outlier,” Manson said. “And a very fringe minority of Catholics believe what she believes and express their Catholicism in the way she expresses it.”
Imperatori-Lee pointed out how public Coney Barrett is about her religion, while Sotomayor is much more private.
“Amy Coney Barrett sort of wears her Catholicism very up-front in the way she presents herself to the world,” Imperatori-Lee said. “Nobody knows to the extent that it affects her legal decisions … but she certainly makes that a part of her public identity in ways that other people do not.”
Coney Barrett isn’t the only one influencing politics in a religious way—some Christian organizations, such as Heartbeat International, have had a similar effect. Heartbeat International is a Catholic and evangelical Christian anti-abortion organization that runs one of the largest networks of “crisis pregnancy centers.” They oppose birth control, contraceptives, and sex before marriage.
In 2022, after Roe v. Wade was overturned, several senators wrote a letter accusing Heartbeat International of collecting personal information about their patients that could not be protected by HIPAA. The senators claimed this was a massive security risk for their constituents.
While Heartbeat International’s president responded to this letter in a statement claiming he didn’t want to be affiliated with politics, Time magazine found that the organization actually filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in 2021 encouraging them to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Heartbeat International and Coney Barrett have something important in common: They’re both working to close the gap between church and state, but they won’t admit it.
Having Coney Barrett’s faith illustrated for the country to see during her confirmation hearings was important because it was a message—or maybe a warning sign—that Roe v. Wade and the era of accessible abortion care across the country was coming to an end. Her upbringing in People of Praise, in part, led to her being the perfect candidate for her position.
“It was very much about overturning Roe v. Wade, and sort of seeing a woman who was a mother who didn’t believe in abortion, in a sense, [on] the Supreme Court,” Imperatori-Lee said. “That was kind of a really important cultural victory [for the anti-choice movement] … Barrett came along as the perfect person for that.”
Sotomayor, on the other hand, doesn’t quite have the privilege to be as up-front about her faith in conjunction with her political views. Imperatori-Lee said this part of Sotomayor’s background could have been held against her during her confirmation hearings.
“My bet is that Sotomayor has learned the hard lesson that a lot of women of color learn,” she said. “Which is that in public, you have to be perfect, and that means anything that could be viewed as a disqualifier needs to not exist in your life. If Sotomayor, as a Latina, had said that her Catholicism was the most important thing in her life, there is no way she would have gotten appointed to the Supreme Court.”
This demonstrates the privilege that Coney Barrett had coming onto the court: first, she’s white, and second, Christian values can now be advantageous to political careers. Beyond that, there is a link between Catholic Americans who regularly attended worship services and people who support former President Donald Trump, who nominated her.
Social justice and the church
The seven principles of Catholic social-justice teaching say to respect human dignity. Some people interpret this as referring to fetuses, but Manson said it can also be about sympathizing with people who have different beliefs, whether regarding abortion care or not.
“The seven principles of Catholic social justice teaching are the best-kept secret in the Catholic tradition,” Manson said. “We have a sense that God is everywhere in the world and that works of justice and mercy are opportunities for us to encounter God, and so these seven principles offer guidance and an opportunity to do that kind of work. It’s one of the things that keeps them connected to the tradition.”
The other principles include a call to family, community, and participation; duty to one another; concern for the poor and vulnerable; dignity of workers; solidarity with others; and care for God’s creation.
These principles are quite broad and call attention to issues like racism, homophobia, economic inequality, and climate change, as all people and the Earth are believed to be God’s creations. Imperatori-Lee said these themes being overlooked causes people to believe you “can’t be a liberal and also be motivated by faith.”
These issues, among others, also tie into abortion care and why the pro-choice stance can just mean being understanding of others, Manson said. She feels the church leadership is partially to blame for this idea.
“I think that Catholic leadership tends to avoid the social justice tradition because it actually is extremely progressive,” she said. “It covers voting rights and the dignity of workers rights. … It tells us to prioritize the poor and vulnerable. … If a pastor were going to preach about this, he would come off sounding pretty liberal. And the fact is, a lot of people that go to church consistently and consistently fund the church are not liberal. And so these teachings could potentially be very unpopular in your daily parish.”
For that reason, Manson said, Sotomayor isn’t being a “cultural Catholic” or a “cafeteria Catholic” when she votes more liberally—she’s just embodying the social principles of the religion that are often ignored.
“Conservative Catholics say that progressive Catholics are ‘cafeteria Catholics’—they pick and choose what teachings they want,” she said. “Amy Coney Barrett is doing the same thing: She’s picking and choosing the teachings she wants and disregarding the social justice teachings.”
Manson believes that pro-choice Catholics are not less faithful than pro-life Catholics, and Catholics for Choice is motivated by the church’s teachings on the individual conscience. Many Catholics depend on their own consciences for moral guidance, which may be why 56 percent of Catholics in the United States are pro-choice.
“One must follow their conscience,” Manson said. “That is the final arbiter in moral decision-making we make, and I think Sonia Sotomayor would do this too.”