The question for the week appears to be: Are you now, or have you ever been, a charismatic Catholic?
In a land in which citizens are divided just as much by entertainment as they are by their religious and political choices, that question leads directly to cable television and a certain blue-zip-code hit focusing on, to quote IMDB, this story hook: “Set in a dystopian future, a woman is forced to live as a concubine under a fundamentalist theocratic dictatorship.”
This leads us to the word “handmaid” and strained efforts by some — repeat “some” — journalists to attach it to the life and faith of Judge Amy Coney Barrett. This topic was, of course, discussed at length during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in). How could we avoid it?
It’s crucial to know that the word “handmaid” has radically different meanings for members of two radically different flocks of Americans.
For Catholics and other traditional Christians, this term is defined by its use in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, during this encounter between Mary and the Angel Gabriel. This is long, but essential:
… The angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. …For with God nothing shall be impossible.
And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.
In this context, the word refers to a “female servant.” However, its use in Christian tradition has, for 2,000 years, been linked directly to St. Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Now, let’s move to mass media, where the Urban Dictionary defines the term as:
A fertile woman brought into a household where the wife is unable to conceive. She will then help with odd jobs around the house, but will also be subject to sexual relations with the man/husband of the household in order to try and bear them a child.
This leads us to a rather troubling report at Newsweek — which lit up social media as Barrett’s name resurfaced in connection to the now vacant U.S. Supreme Court seat of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The story’s tweaked headline now states:
How Charismatic Catholic Groups Like Amy Coney Barrett’s People of Praise Inspired ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
The article now ends with this rather remarkable statement:
Correction: This article’s headline originally stated that People of Praise inspired ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. The book’s author, Margaret Atwood, has never specifically mentioned the group as being the inspiration for her work. A New Yorker profile of the author from 2017 mentions a newspaper clipping as part of her research for the book of a different charismatic Catholic group, People of Hope. Newsweek regrets the error.
In other words, People of Hope is a different body of believers than People of Praise — although both are linked to decades of charismatic renewal among Catholics around the world, a movement that was investigated and then embraced by Vatican officials, including the current Pope Francis.
But it wasn’t enough to confuse the People of Hope organization with the People of Praise. The Newsweek correction really needs to be corrected — again.
Why? Note this interesting material included in a National Review essay — entitled “Get Your Facts Right” — that focuses that Associated Press “clipping” linked to “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The AP story ran on October 30, 1985, with this headline: “Residents Of Quiet Town Say Separatist Cult Taking Over Local Church.” The “cult” or “sect” is People of Hope. Here is a key passage:
…The Rev. Pierce Byrne, pastor of Little Flower Church, members of the Catholic-based sect and Catholic officials say the People of Hope, which has 1,100 followers throughout the state, is recognized by the church.
″It’s a group within a group,″ said Michael Hurley, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark. ″It’s a legitimate Catholic charismatic community.″
The National Review piece by Jim Geraghty calls attention to the date on that story, which is significant in light of the following. Once again, this is long, but essential.
In a 2012 interview, Atwood described the process of writing The Handmaid’s Tale.
“From 12 September 1984 to June 1985 all is blank in my journal — there is nothing at all set down, not even a puffball — though by my page-count entries it seems I was writing at white-hot speed. On 10 June there is a cryptic entry: “Finished editing Handmaid’s Tale last week.” The page proofs had been read by 19 August. The book appeared in Canada in the fall of 1985 to baffled and sometimes anxious reviews — could it happen here? — but there is no journal commentary on these by me.”
If the page proofs were completed by August and the book’s official publication date is listed as August 1985, how did an AP article from October 1985 influence the book’s story?
Tom Deignan of the Newark Star-Ledger made this observation in 2017:
“The Jersey conflict that caught Atwood’s attention didn’t hit the Associated Press wires (and newspapers all across the U.S. and Canada) until October 1985.
“By then Atwood’s book had already been published.” …
Thus, Geraghty argues:
Apparently, no one noticed Deignan’s point — or no one cares. Critics of Barrett have a narrative they like, and they’re not going to give it up just because it isn’t accurate.
So why is it so important in some newsrooms to connect the term “handmaiden” — and the Urban Dictionary take on that biblical term — with centuries of beliefs among Roman Catholics, and other traditional Christians, about the Virgin Mary?
Well, watch the Hulu trailer, at the top of this post, for the first year of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Isn’t this what is at stake in the Barrett nomination? Isn’t this what is stake, in terms of the beliefs of all of those bizarre believers — charismatic Catholics and otherwise — who do not shudder when they read scripture in which the Virgin Mary humbly refers to herself as “the handmaid (servant) of the Lord”?
The conservative Media Research Center has collected quite a few examples of the handmaid tales from media coverage, past and present. Click here to check that out. It’s an advocacy piece, of course, but the links and YouTube material is valuable.
There are too many other People of Praise reports to critique (click here for my positive post on a New York Times feature), but one other sad story deserves attention — from Reuters.
The top of the original version of that story (“Handmaid’s Tale? U.S. Supreme Court candidate’s religious community under scrutiny”) looked like this:
(Reuters) — Some have likened People of Praise, a self-described charismatic Christian community, to the totalitarian, male-dominated society of Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Others call it an ultraconservative group with an unusual mix of Roman Catholic and Pentecostal traditions.
In any case there has been renewed interest in the group since U.S. President Donald Trump put one of its purported members, Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the Seventh District Court of Appeals, on his short list of candidates for elevation to the Supreme Court.
The group has declined to confirm or deny whether Barrett was a member since a New York Times article in 2017 said she was in the group, citing unnamed current and former members.
That was quietly replaced, after a firestorm on Twitter, with a second take that starts like this:
(Reuters) — People of Praise, a self-described charismatic Christian community, has faced renewed interest since U.S. President Donald Trump put one of its purported members, Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, on his short list of candidates for elevation to the Supreme Court.
The group says on its website it is made up of liberals and conservatives, with a mixture including Roman Catholic and Pentecostal traditions, though at least one expert and a former member consider it very conservative. Until 2018, it used the term ‘handmaid’ for its female leaders.
The group has declined to confirm or deny whether Barrett was a member since a New York Times article in 2017 said she was in the group, citing unnamed current and former members. It says it leaves it to members to disclose any involvement. At the time, Barrett did not respond to requests for comment from the Times.
The group’s spokesman, Sean Connolly, told Reuters that women are not considered subservient in People of Praise and that many hold leadership roles, such as directing schools and ministries.
As I said earlier, there are simply too many Barrett-related stories and commentaries to mention, at this point, and she hasn’t even been nominated yet.
I think it’s crucial for journalists to grasp that this is, on many levels, part of a bitter fight between the Catholic left (those who yearn for changes in basic Catholic doctrines) and doctrinally conservative Catholics of various kinds (the folks I call the pro-Catechism Catholics).
Want to look inside that conflict?
First read this at The National Catholic Reporter: “Prospective Supreme Court nominee puts spotlight on People of Praise.” It opens like this:
It has taken Coral Anika Theill 30 years to heal from the physical and emotional abuse she says she suffered while a member of People of Praise, one of several “covenanted communities” that grew out of the Catholic charismatic revival in the 1970s.
And now she’s worried because a woman deeply involved in the group is on a short list of nominees to the highest court in the land. Judge Amy Coney Barrett is reportedly a member — and likely a “covenanted” member — of People of Praise, which means she has entered into a marital-like promise of commitment to other members. The group’s leader said “a pretty high fraction” of the 1,700 adult members are covenanted.
Now, contrast that with the following 2018 background piece from The National Catholic Register: “Judge Amy Barrett’s Charismatic Affiliation: Who Are the People of Praise?” The key voice in this piece is a bishop linked to People of Praise, who was raised to the episcopate early in the papacy of Pope Francis.
… What is the “People of Praise?” Is it a cult? CNA spoke with current and former members to find out.
Bishop Peter Smith, an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Portland, Oregon, is a member of the Brotherhood of the People of Praise, an association of priests connected to the group, founded with the support of the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. Bishop Smith was ordained a bishop on April 29, 2014.
Now, if you know anything about divisions among American Catholics, it’s interesting to see People of Praise linked to the late Cardinal George — a hero to conservative Catholics. When he retired, George was replaced by Cardinal Blase Cupich — a hero on the Catholic left.
Now we have a Barrett, a conservative Catholic, facing waves of criticism linked to fears that her embrace of centuries of Catholic dogma will have negative consequences for blue-zip-code Americans. On the other side of this drama is Democrat Joe Biden, whose actions and evolving faith are praised by the Catholic left.
Let me offer a question that cannot be answered, no matter how hard some journalists attempt to link it to the “handmaid” smear: When Amy Coney Barrett goes to confession, does she seek advice and guidance about issues in her life from the priest who serves as her regular confessor?
Is that a fair question? How about this one: When Joe Biden goes to confession, does he seek advice and guidance about issues in his life from the priest who serves as his regular confessor?
If the first question is of life-and-death importance to the future of America, what about the second one?
Enjoy the podcast and, please, pass it on to others.
FIRST IMAGE: From Twitter post by Hollywood Handmaids.