Catholic judges under the microscope

Catholics wanting to serve our country in the legal system are coming under intense scrutiny. In 2017, University of Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett was grilled by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee about her Catholic faith. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California told Barrett that “the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s a concern.”

This sparked a public backlash, and a cottage industry in selling “The Dogma Lives Loudly Within Me” T-shirts to proud Catholics. Barrett was confirmed as a federal judge, supported by 52 Republicans and three Democrats.

Then in 2018, Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii objected to confirming Brian Buescher as a federal district judge because he belongs to the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization.

Their problem: The Knights defend Catholic teaching on abortion and marriage. Sen. Hirono asked Buescher if he would leave the Knights if confirmed, “to avoid any appearance of bias.” Buescher was confirmed, with every Democrat present voting no.

And in recent weeks there was an unsuccessful effort to block confirmation of Sarah Pitlyk as a federal judge. She was opposed by all Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Some said she lacked trial and litigation experience. But Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois launched a different attack: Pitlyk had expressed “extreme” views against in vitro fertilization and “surrogate motherhood,” views consistent with Catholic teaching.

Sen. Duckworth said she was offended by Pitlyk’s stand because her own children were conceived by in vitro fertilization. She harshly attacked the attorney for what she called a “cavalier willingness to substitute her own ideological opinions in place of facts.” But Sen. Duckworth herself ignored some facts.

Pitlyk’s chief offense was that when she worked for the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit public interest law firm, she submitted a brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of Catholic and secular organizations with expertise in medicine and medical ethics. (Full disclosure: I am affiliated with two of those organizations, the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Charlotte Lozier Institute.)

The brief urged the Supreme Court to hear the case of “M.C. v. C.M.” A woman, Melissa Cook, had agreed to be a “surrogate mother,” gestating a child conceived by in vitro fertilization using the sperm of Chester Moore Jr. and eggs donated by a young woman. When Cook became pregnant with triplets, Moore demanded under the surrogacy contract that she abort one child.

Cook refused on moral grounds, and later filed suit to ensure that Moore would be assessed for fitness as a father and would not get custody of the “extra” child he had wanted killed.

Pitlyk’s brief cited numerous medical journal articles and other secular sources to argue that a law demanding enforcement of such contracts against a birth mother was harmful to the health and well-being of women and children.

According to Sen. Duckworth, Pitlyk’s brief “cruelly implied” that children conceived by in vitro fertilization are “inferior.” She had said exactly the opposite, that these children have the same rights as other children and should have those rights respected.

Is Pitlyk’s view extreme? Surrogacy contracts have been criticized by secular feminists, who understand that a coerced abortion is not “pro-choice” and that commercial exploitation of women’s bodies demeans their dignity. In vitro fertilization, which treats human procreation as a manufacturing process, has long been criticized by Leon Kass and other non-Catholic ethicists.

But the brief was written by a Catholic and was consistent with Catholic teaching, so Pitlyk was attacked for holding extreme “personal beliefs.”

Some senators, especially Democrats, should recall that under our Constitution “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”


Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.

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