Explainer: People of Praise, the ‘handmaidens cult’ followed by Supreme Court candidate

Image credit: Notre Dame University

By Andrew Brown

The suggestion that Donald Trump might pick Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative Catholic, for the Supreme Court to replace the liberal Jewish Ruth Bader Ginsburg has triggered partisan fury on both sides. Mrs Barrett belongs a small charismatic community called “People of Praise”.

Charismatic Catholics are those who try to recapture the intimate connection with the Holy Spirit that characterised the early church. They speak in tongues, and expect miracles and prophecies in their everyday lives. These are the gifts or “charisms” that they believe the church lost sight of for much of its history. They are part of the one of the largest movement in global Christianity. Charismatics across all denominations form about a quarter of the world’s Christians.

In the late 1960s the movement started to spread outside Pentecostal denominations into mainstream churches, among them Anglicans and Catholics, where it is now firmly established. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has said that he prays in tongues every day.

People of Praise is a small grouping, with only about 1,700 members. Most, but not all, are Catholics. It dates back to the beginnings of the Catholic charismatic movement in the US, and was founded at Notre Dame University in Indiana, where Mrs Barrett is a law professor. She is also a circuit court judge.

The most controversial aspect of the group is that it teaches that husbands must have authority over their wives, and that all members must each accept the authority of a more experienced or discerning member of the group. The leaders for women were known as “handmaidens” until the term was discredited by the global success of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale.

It has been suggested that Mrs Barrett must therefore be a cult member and even that her community was the inspiration for The Handmaid’s Tale. These reports fed into the partisan reaction when her name was mentioned as a possible supreme court judge.

The American Catholic church is deeply divided, politically and culturally, between right and left. For the right, the issue of abortion is more important than anything else. For the left, what matters more is social justice.

Pope Francis has made little secret of his disdain for Trump and his programme. “Christians”, he has said, “build bridges and not walls”. Right-wing American Catholics have attacked him and funded his avowed enemies such as Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former Vatican ambassador to Washington who now claims that the student uprisings of 1968 were the result of liberalising forces in the church.

It’s not entirely clear where Mrs Barrett or her community sits in all this. In general, the Jesuits are regarded as the left wing of the American church, and Pope Francis is a Jesuit. But the Jesuit magazine America has published an eloquent defence of Mrs Barrett and her charismatic community. The author says that the People of Praise are “deeply committed to the poor”.

Catholic teaching condemns abortion and the death penalty. Republicans are opposed only to abortion. US Catholic bishops most recently voted 194 to 8 that the death penalty was “morally inadmissible”.  Mrs Barrett co-wrote an article in a law journal in 1998 in which she argued that Catholic judges should recuse themselves from death penalty cases because of the “moral impossibility of enforcing capital punishment in such cases as sentencing, enforcing jury recommendations, and affirming”.

The article does not state what a Catholic judge should do in cases involving abortion. On the one hand, it says that the prohibition in Catholic teaching is absolute, and clearer than that against the death penalty. But it concludes that “Judges cannot — nor should they try to — align our legal system with the church’s moral teaching whenever the two diverge. They should, however, conform their own behaviour to the church’s standard. Perhaps their good example will have some effect.”

Mrs Barrett Barrett is married to a lawyer, Jesse M. Barrett, and has seven children aged 8 to 19, two of whom are adopted from Haiti.

COMMENTARY

Nathan W. O’Halloran, SJ, in America magazine: “I have met with People of Praise members. I have attended their prayer meetings in South Bend. At the last one I attended, Amy Barrett was present with her family, and we extended our hands in prayer over them. The members I have met are deeply committed to the poor. They are insistent that Catholics have a personal relationship with Christ. They love the Eucharist and have strong Marian devotions.”

Ruth Graham in Slate, in 2018: “Thanks to her new proximity to power, the dark murmurings over Barrett’s religious affiliations have been revived. Many critics are particularly incensed over her apparent membership in a Catholic-adjacent group called ‘People of Praise’, which The New York Times reported last fall. Law professor and Senate candidate Richard Painter tweeted the old Times story this weekend and said People of Praise ‘looks like a cult’; another prominent critic one-upped Painter by calling it a ‘secretive religious cult’.

“The Times story does not use the word cult, but it’s easy to see why some of its details alarmed many readers. People of Praise members are said to be accountable to a same-sex adviser, called a ‘head’ for men and (until recently) a ‘handmaiden’ for women, who gives input on a wide variety of personal decisions. They swear ‘a lifelong oath of loyalty’ to the group. As one blogger put it, ‘Barrett is a dangerous religious extremist who believes a federal judge can subvert the US Constitution and the laws of the United States in order to promote her own religious agenda.’ Knowing Barrett’s fiercely conservative legal credentials — clerking for fellow Catholic Antonin Scalia, membership in the Federalist Society — what are we to make of her alleged membership in such a group?”

Reuters 22 September 2020:

“Coral Anika Theill, a former People of Praise member, has been strongly critical of the group, calling it a ‘cult’ and saying in an interview women are expected to be completely obedient to men and independent thinkers are ‘humiliated, interrogated, shamed and shunned’.

“Theill, who last year wrote a blog post entitled ‘I lived the Handmaid’s Tale’, said she planned to call every US senator to oppose Barrett should she become Trump’s nominee.

“Reuters could not independently verify her account. When asked about Theill’s allegations, People of Praise spokesman [Sean] Connolly said the group followed Christian teachings that ‘men and women share a fundamental equality as bearers of God’s image’. ‘We value independent thinking,’ Connolly said.

“Thomas Csordas, a scholar of comparative religion at the University of California, San Diego, said People of Praise was ‘very conservative’ but that he would not consider it a cult, adding that some of the charismatic Christian communities he has researched were more authoritarian than People of Praise.”

 LINKS

People of Praise

Catholics for Choice (pro-choice Catholic laity) +1 (202) 203-0931

Catholic Mobilising Network (Opposed to the Death Penalty) media@catholicsmobilizing.org +1-202-541-5290