Explainer: Amy Coney Barrett’s relationship with People of Praise

Amy Coney Barrett is pictured in this undated photo. She is a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and a law professor at the University of Notre Dame. A Catholic, she is on President Donald Trump's list of of potential nominees to fill the U.S. Supreme Court seat left vacant by the Sept. 18, 2020, death of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (CNS photo/Matt Cashore, University of Notre Dame via Reuters)

The charismatic community People of Praise is in the news this week because President Trump has met with Amy Coney Barrett, whom he is considering nominating to the U.S. Supreme Court following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ms. Coney Barrett’s affiliation with the group, based near the University of Notre Dame, where she taught law, came into view in 2017, when she was confirmed as a federal appeals court judge. With news of Ms. Coney Barrett’s possible Supreme Court nomination, People of Praise came into the spotlight again, with at least one publication claiming it was the basis for the dystopian novel and television series The Handmaid's Tale.

What is People of Praise?

People of Praise is a South Bend, Ind.–based charismatic community that attracts members from a number of Christian churches, though the vast majority of its members are Catholic. The group was founded in 1971, part of a Catholic charismatic renewal that emerged from the Second Vatican Council. Charismatic communities emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit in the daily lives of believers. Some of their practices appear to have more in common with Pentecostal communities than with traditional Catholicism, such as speaking in tongues, healing services and prophecy.

Some of their practices appear to have more in common with Pentecostal communities, such as speaking in tongues, healing services and prophecy.

Charismatic communities became increasingly popular through the 1970s and ’80s. The University of Notre Dame once hosted an annual conference devoted to these groups, which attracted tens of thousands of participants. Many groups have been active near college campuses. In some charismatic communities, single members share homes with families who are also part of the group. Other communities purchase multiple homes in a single neighborhood, creating a feeling of a large extended family living on the same block. Members of People of Praise pledge to donate 5 percent of their income to the group, though some give more.

Craig Lent, the leader of People of Praise, told Slate in 2018 that the community pledges “to care for each other physically, financially, materially, and spiritually.” Today, about 350 people belong to the People of Praise in South Bend, with a few thousand more in branches spread throughout the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. Their membership lists are not public.

Why do people incorrectly claim People of Praise is related to The Handmaid’s Tale?

Amy Coney Barrett was nominated by President Trump to be a federal judge in 2017. During her confirmation hearing, some U.S. senators questioned her about the role faith plays in her life. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, said to Ms. Coney Barrett, “The dogma lives loudly within you,” referencing speeches given by Ms. Barrett to conservative legal groups and a 1998 article she co-authored about the obligations of Catholic judges in cases involving the death penalty. Ms. Feinstein’s questioning led to charges of anti-Catholic bias.

[Don’t miss more stories like this one. Sign up for our newsletter.]

A few weeks after her confirmation hearing, The New York Times published a story highlighting Ms. Coney Barrett’s connection to the People of Praise. The article presented the group as shadowy and mysterious. It reported that members of the group are assigned same-sex advisers who act as life coaches, helping members discern important life choices. The article reported that male mentors are called “heads” and said that the female mentors were called “handmaids,” though it later noted that the term handmaid had been dropped by that point, in favor of “woman leader.”

People of Praise became more widely known just as Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted for television. At least one article in 2018, appearing in The Daily Mail, made the connection between People of Praise and the dystopian story, claiming the group partly inspired the novel. That claim was based on a 1986 interview of Ms. Atwood that appeared in The New York Times Book Review.

[Want to discuss politics with other America readers? Join our Facebook discussion group, moderated by America’s writers and editors.]

“There is a sect now, a Catholic charismatic spinoff sect, which calls the women handmaids,” Ms. Atwood said in the interview, without naming the group. “They don’t go in for polygamy of this kind but they do threaten the handmaids according to the biblical verse I use in the book—sit down and shut up.”

The controversy reappeared in 2020, when Ms. Coney Barrett was reportedly a front-runner to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. An article in Newsweek flatly stated that People of Praise was the inspiration for Ms. Atwood’s novel (it has since corrected the article and headline to say that People of Praise is “the type of Christian religious group” that inspired the novel), a claim that was picked up but later changed in other publications, including Reuters and the law blog Above the Law.

While Ms. Atwood said that she could not remember exactly which group she was referring to when asked after the Newsweek article was published, further reporting has established that in the past, she has consistently linked that reference to People of Hope, a different charismatic group, not to People of Praise.

What do the People of Praise believe?

People of Praise is not a church, so its members tend to believe what their own churches teach. Since 90 percent of the people who belong to People of Praise are Catholics, that means they follow the teachings of the Catholic Church. The organization places an emphasis on family life, traditional gender roles and a deep prayer life. It also operates three high schools, publishes a newsletter and provides support to food pantries, child care for working mothers and assistance to pro-life organizations.

The group also tends to skew conservative, at least politically. An article from 1988 in The South Bend Tribune notes support for the organization from a bishop in Grenada, who thanked its missionaries for helping to fight Marxist ideology.

The organization places an emphasis on family life, traditional gender roles and a deep prayer life.

Dan DeCelles, a leader in People of Praise and a nephew of the group’s founder, Paul DeCelles, told The Tribune in 1996 that the purpose of the group is to incorporate faith into every aspect of life. “We believe that there’s nothing outside the Christian life,” he said. “So everything we do, we want to do for Christ and our neighbor.”

Alan Schreck, a professor of theology at the University of Steubenville, said people attracted to charismatic communities like People of Praise tend to take “the traditional ways of Catholic life much more seriously,” he said.

That traditional view can have implications for members of the group. Another article in The Sound Bend Tribune, from 2018, quotes a woman who said she was exiled from the group after coming out as gay.

Is the group a cult?

People of Praise requires about six years of discernment before a member makes a lifelong “covenant,” or personal commitment, pledging to remain part of the organization. The group’s website says a person is free to leave the covenant at any time. But there have been charges that charismatic communities can be overly controlling, including some made by a former member of a similar group in The National Catholic Reporter in 2018. Those kinds of accusations have been leveled at People of Praise as well.

In 1980, former members of People of Praise accused the organization of operating with a “Jamestown mentality and dominance” and said it was guilty of brainwashing in an article that appeared in The National Catholic Reporter. Those charges were denied by the group’s leaders and the local bishop said he supported the organization.

The group’s website says a person is free to leave at any time. But there have been charges that charismatic communities can be overly controlling.

Over the years, similar charges have been leveled by others at People of Praise.

In 1983, two theologians involved in the early days of the Catholic charismatic movement said the communities created as part of the movement were unhealthy. Josephine Ford told The Observer in 1983 that People of Praise had become patriarchal and demanded submission to authority.

In 1992, a former member of People of Praise, Marie Reimers, wrote an essay about leaving the group, along with her husband Adrian. Ms. Reimers said it had been an ordeal to restart life, writing, “Leaders of covenant communities have built an artificial culture which surrounds the member.”

An investigation into another charismatic community, the Servants of Christ the King, by U.S. bishops in 1992 reported that the way in which leaders wield authority in these communities could be troubling. An article from that year in The National Catholic Register (not available online) says that leaders in charismatic groups, including People of Praise, could be overly controlling when it came to “money, personal decisions, job options, vocation choices, even, in extreme cases, marriage and child-rearing practices.” An anonymous complaint in that article from a former member of People of Praise claimed the group used authority to control the lives of female members, a charge the organization denied.

Mr. Schreck, the Steubenville professor who said he belongs to a charismatic community, said the independence the groups have from churches can present challenges. Sometimes, lay leaders with little theological training offer “too much direction about how one conducts their family life or their daily life, not based on sound experience or formation, either spiritual or psychological,” he said. Sometimes, he said, a local bishop will try to intervene.

Thomas Csordas, an anthropologist at the University of California San Diego, told Slate in 2018 that he “would definitely not use the term cult in its popular sense” about People of Praise.

What about Amy Coney Barrett’s association with the group and her faith?

Ms. Coney Barrett’s name was removed from the group’s website in 2017, according to The New York Times story from that year. The organization said members sometimes request that they not be named in marketing materials. Mr. Lent told The South Bend Tribune in 2018 that the organization does not try to influence its members when it comes to their professional lives.

But some people think Ms. Coney Barrett should be more transparent about her membership in the organization and answer questions about how her faith influences her philosophy on the law. “You can’t say that our faith on the one hand has ramifications for politics, law and the common good and on the other hand expect not to answer questions about it,” Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at Boston College, told America in 2017.

For her part, Ms. Coney Barrett told senators in 2017 that she sees “no conflict between having a sincerely held faith and duties as a judge.” She added that she would “never impose my own personal convictions upon the law.”

Ms. Coney Barrett told senators in 2017 that she sees “no conflict between having a sincerely held faith and duties as a judge.”

But that hasn’t stopped critics from scouring her record and speeches. Ms. Coney Barrett signed an open letter in 2015 addressed to Catholic bishops meeting in Rome for the Synod on the Family that affirmed support for pro-life positions, traditional gender roles and marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Many on social media have shared reports about a 2006 commencement address Ms. Coney Barrett delivered at the University of Notre Dame in which she said a legal career was a means toward “building the Kingdom of God.” But others have pointed out that the “kingdom” phraseology phrase is common among Christians with a liberal ideology, including former President Barack Obama. In the speech, Ms. Coney Barrett also described how Notre Dame’s Catholic mission related to the legal education graduates had received.

Opinions are split as to whether Ms. Coney Barrett’s affiliation with People of Praise is a valid line of inquiry if she is considered for the Supreme Court.

“Barrett’s nomination would raise an important new problem,” the theologian Massimo Faggioli wrote in Politico on Sept. 24, discounting the notion that anti-Catholicism animates such questions. “Is there a tension between forthrightly serving as one of the final interpreters of the Constitution and swearing an oath to an organization that lacks transparency and visible structures of authority that are accountable to their members, to the Roman Catholic Church and to the wider public?”

But Rick Garnett, a colleague of Ms. Coney Barrett’s at Notre Dame, wrote a response to Mr. Faggioli, first saying that he agrees questions about a judicial nominee’s faith could be acceptable. “What should be off-limits,” he added, “are (a) misrepresenting or wilfully misunderstanding a nominee’s or candidate’s religious beliefs and (b) applying, without justification or warrant, greater suspicion and skepticism to a candidate’s or nominee's sworn testimony because of disagreement with that candidate's or nominee’s religious beliefs or affiliations.”

Ms. Coney Barrett’s religious affiliations and beliefs may be beside the point. Mr. Trump has promised to nominate pro-life judges and Ms. Coney Barrett is seen as reliably conservative, with her support for gun rights and opposition to abortion highlighted in reviews of her decisions as a federal judge.

Mr. Trump announced Ms. Coney Barrett's nomination to the Supreme Court on Sept. 26.

[Read this next: Amy Coney Barrett’s religion is important—but irrelevant]

Update, Sept. 27: This article has been updated to reflect the nomination of Ms. Coney Barrett and to include references to additional reporting, published after its initial posting, that more clearly established how the false link between People of Praise and The Handmaid’s Tale came about.

The latest from america

Father Matt Malone’s homily for the Feast of St. Edmund Campion, patron America Media.
Matt Malone, S.J.December 01, 2020
Part of my project aims to show that Catholics responded heroically to H.I.V. and AIDS in the early days. What I didn’t realize in setting out to tell these stories was how raw that time remains for so many people, even decades later.
Michael J. O’LoughlinDecember 01, 2020
Cardinal Fitzgerald noted that Francis took inspiration for the encyclical not only from St. Francis of Assisi but also from the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 01, 2020
COVID-19 is not the first pandemic of our lifetime. But we’re certainly acting like it is. 
Brian Strassburger, S.J. December 01, 2020