Pope St. John Paul II and the ‘feminine genius’ of Amy Coney Barrett

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Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, President Donald Trump's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, speaks during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington Oct. 12, 2020. (CNS photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool via Reuters)

It is fitting that the first vote on Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination took place Oct. 22 — the feast day of Pope St. John Paul II — as the Senate Judiciary Committee, as expected, voted to pass her nomination to the full Senate.

With Barrett’s confirmation hearings completed — hearings that she endured for three grueling days (including 11 hours the first day alone) — Americans have a better understanding of the temperament, thoughtfulness and stamina of President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who died Sept. 19.

There were not many surprise questions from the Democratic senators of the Senate Judiciary Committee (aside from bizarre detours by Sen. Mazie Hirono asking Barrett if she had ever made “unwanted requests for sexual favors” and Sen. Kamala Harris inquiring if Barrett thought that smoking causes cancer).

While watching the hearings, it was hard to ignore the presence of Barrett’s seven children, some of whom sat behind her at multiple points during the week. That Barrett is both the mother of a large family and an accomplished jurist seemed to have genuinely baffled Supreme Court pundits and senators alike. Several Judiciary Committee members marveled at Barrett’s seeming ability to “do it all” — Sen. John Kennedy wondering aloud how she managed (of all things) the laundry for her seven children while serving as a judge on the appellate court. In contrast, the late Justice Antonin Scalia had nine children at the time of his confirmation hearings, yet there was nary a question about his ability to function as the father of a large family and hold down a demanding job, much less questions about how the laundry would get done or who would do it.

Pope St. John Paul II. CNS

Yet to many Catholics familiar with the writings of John Paul II, Judge Barrett’s life makes perfect sense. Barrett’s testimony was reminiscent of that feminine “genius” that the late pope so eloquently described in his 1995 Letter to Women. Day after day, she was poised, gracious and charitable in her replies to even the most offensive questions. Her legal acumen was evident, reflected in her measured responses to lines of inquiry that were clearly meant to trip her up.

Even as some wondered whether it was appropriate for Catholic wives and mothers to be working outside the home at all, and others claimed that they had been explicitly taught by pastors or other church leaders that women should not pursue careers outside of child-rearing and housekeeping, it is clear that Barrett’s job interview for a place on the highest court in the land would have pleased the late pope.

“Thank you, women who work!” St. John Paul II wrote. “You are present and active in every area of life — social, economic, cultural, artistic and political. In this way you make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling, to a model of life ever open to the sense of ‘mystery,’ to the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity.”

Although released 25 years ago, the issues the pope raised in his Letter to Women remain relevant today. “And what shall we say of the obstacles which in so many parts of the world still keep women from being fully integrated into social, political and economic life?” he asked. “We need only think of how the gift of motherhood is often penalized rather than rewarded, even though humanity owes its very survival to this gift. Certainly, much remains to be done to prevent discrimination against those who have chosen to be wives and mothers.”

When she is confirmed by the Senate, Amy Coney Barrett will be only the fifth woman and the first mother of school-age children to sit on the Supreme Court. She brings with her not only a brilliant mind but also a life shaped by the Gospel, a mother’s heart and a deep sensitivity to women who, like her, put their gifts and talents at the service of others.

In closing his Letter to Women, Pope John Paul II notes, “From the heart of the Church there have emerged women of the highest caliber who have left an impressive and beneficial mark on history … the Third Millennium will certainly not be lacking in new and surprising manifestations of ‘the feminine genius.'”

So perhaps as she takes up her new work, Judge Barrett could give copies of the Letter to Women to the Senate Judiciary Committee. It might just provide them with the explanation that seemed to elude them as they tried to understand our next Supreme Court justice.

Mary Hallan FioRito is an attorney and the Cardinal Francis George Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the deNicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. She writes from Chicago.

Mary Hallan FioRito

Mary Hallan FioRito is an attorney and the Cardinal Francis George Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.