From the Bishop


By The Most Rev. Kevin W. Vann, J.C.D., D.D., Bishop of Orange     10/24/2020

One thing is certain about this year: it has been full of difficult surprises. For instance, a particular shock came on September 18, 2020, when the world learned of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the unambiguously brilliant Associate Justice and longtime gadfly of the liberal wing of the Supreme Court, also known for her great and abiding friendship with the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Ginsburg’s political polar opposite. And yet, as sad and sudden as Ginsburg’s death was, for she was undoubtedly a towering jurist, the American political establishment did not have to wait long for yet another surprise, causing quite evident dismay for some and great rejoicing for others. On September 26, 2020, President Donald J. Trump’s nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by Ginsburg’s death sent shockwaves through America and caused much political handwringing from those who oppose her nomination this close to the Presidential Election. While the prudential and constitutional questions raised by Judge Barrett’s nomination may be interesting in their own right, I would like to eschew those debates entirely and focus on the nominee herself. Because, political arguments aside, the best aspect of this latest surprising turn of events is that Judge Barrett is, by all accounts, a woman of deep faith, insightful intelligence, and that rarest of virtues in these divisive times, Christian charity. Frankly, I thought that I had some understanding of the Supreme Court and the role of the judges from my studies in “Civics” years ago and in college, but this hearing taught me much in the ways few other experiences have. I experienced what I learned many years ago in the testimony and witness of Judge Barrett. This was indeed a “living lesson.”

I do not know Judge Barrett myself—I, like most people, have to trust the testimony of others as to her character—but what I read is edifying. As your Bishop, I would like to share with you just one such testimony, which speaks to her virtues both poignantly and convincingly. I have been able to listen to listen to this testimony twice, most recently during the Senate Hearing. Ms. Laura E. Wolk, Esq., is an attorney and a former law clerk to Associate Justice Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, who studied under Judge Barrett at the University of Notre Dame Law School. And while Ms. Wolk’s resume is impressive on those accomplishments alone, Ms. Wolk is also totally blind, in fact the first completely blind clerk in the Court’s history. On October 15, 2020, Ms. Wolk testified on Judge Barrett’s behalf at the Senate Hearing on her nomination to the Court, and Wolk’s written testimony, delivered via “assistive technology” due to her disability, speaks volumes.[1] Firstly, Ms. Wolk describes the difficulties of being completely blind in an academic environment, given that without her “assistive technology”, she is at a distinct disadvantage to her sighted classmates. She then relates that before she matriculated at Notre Dame, she tried to make sure that the University would be prepared with the technology she needed, and indeed while she was told she would be provided with it, in fact it was not to be so: “I arrived on campus to find that bureaucratic glitches left me without access to that technology. […] Overnight, I found myself struggling to keep up in class, and I began to fall more and more behind with each passing hour. I needed help, and I needed it fast.” Ms. Wolk tells the story of how this rather dire situation of lack of institutional preparedness, not an uncommon experience for those with disabilities, led her to confide in one of her new professors, none other than Judge Barrett, because of “her rare combination of graciousness and warmth.” And while Ms. Wolk’s initial expectations for significant help from Judge Barrett were not high, to her surprise she had encountered a true Christian soul in Judge Barrett. Ms. Wolk’s conversation with Judge Barrett allowed her to express her fears and to receive the help she so desperately needed. As Ms. Wolk is a wordsmith, her testimony clearly describes the excellence of Judge Barrett not only as a judge or professor, but most importantly as a human being with a heart for others. Please permit me to quote her here in full:

“[Judge Barrett] sat silently, listening with deep attention as I explained my situation. She exuded calm and compassion, giving me the freedom to let down my guard and come apart. As a person with a disability, I am constantly playing the role of self-advocate. I am accustomed to projecting an air of self-assuredness even when I do not feel it, of acting like I have everything under control when in reality the world feels like it is spinning out from under me. But in front of Judge Barrett, I was able to let the mask slip—indeed, to disappear completely. I poured out all of my concerns—my worries about failing classes, having to choose between completing my assignments and figuring out how to get to the grocery store independently, and feeling as though the energy spent troubleshooting these issues was preventing me from forging friendships. When I finished, Judge Barrett leaned forward and looked at me intently. “Laura,” she said, with the same measured conviction that she has displayed throughout her nomination process, “this is no longer your problem. It’s my problem.”

I cannot think of a more Christian way to express the charity to which we are all called than that which Judge Barrett’s offer of assistance conveys. For indeed, what was Judge Barrett saying, if not that she, the esteemed professor and judge, would take time from her busy schedule to stoop to deal with the Notre Dame bureaucracy for a mere student? It would have been no different than if Judge Barrett had said at that moment instead, Laura, let me bear your cross with you. No, even more, let me carry this cross away from you entirely. Again, as Ms. Wolk puts it beautifully: “Judge Barrett possesses a boundless font of energy and a radical sense of love that she is ever-ready to pour out upon those lucky enough to call her teacher, boss, family, and friend.” To think that such high words of praise are being said about a Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and potentially a future Justice of the highest Court in the land, should give us all hope, and even inspire us. Truly in these confusing times, there is great need of inspiration to see us through our daily lives, to be that lamp to guide our way!

Simply put, Judge Barrett has proven herself worthy of the accolades she receives, and of the office for which she is being considered. She lives her Catholic faith with valor in her vocations as a wife, mother of seven (including two adopted Haitian children, and one with Down Syndrome), and jurist; she is a celebrated professor of Law at one of our nation’s greatest Catholic universities; and she is known for her charity and class both on the bench and in everyday life. Whether or not one agrees with her political views, she certainly has what it takes to fill the seat of the late Justice Ginsburg, who, one would hope, could not fail to rejoice that a working woman of such caliber as Judge Barrett should be nominated to succeed her, despite their political differences. In a year filled with so many challenging moments, surprises that destabilize rather than build-up, the nomination of a person such as Judge Amy Coney Barrett to a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States is a glimmer of light in a darkening time. And that is a surprise worth celebrating.