As Republican frontrunner Donald Trump moves closer to the presidential nomination, Catholics are questioning whether voting for the billionaire-turned-politician is a wise — or even moral — option.

On March 7, dozens of prominent Catholic leaders released an appeal calling Trump “manifestly unfit to be president of the United States.”

“His campaign has already driven our politics down to new levels of vulgarity,” the statement says. “His appeals to racial and ethnic fears and prejudice are offensive to any genuinely Catholic sensibility. He promised to order U.S. military personnel to torture terrorist suspects and to kill terrorists’ families — actions condemned by the Church and policies that would bring shame upon our country.”

“And there is nothing in his campaign or his previous record that gives us grounds for confidence that he genuinely shares our commitments to the right to life, to religious freedom and the rights of conscience, to rebuilding the marriage culture, or to subsidiarity and the principle of limited constitutional government.”        

The statement is signed by more than 30 leading U.S. Catholics, including Robert George, law professor at Princeton University; Mary Rice Hasson, director of the Catholic Women’s Forum at the Ethics and Public Policy Center; and Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University.

Church teaching does not dictate which party or candidate a Catholic should choose. It does, however, offer guidelines for the faithful to use in making their decision.

In their document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S. bishops outline an understanding of political responsibility based upon developing a “well-formed conscience.”

“While Catholics must vote their conscience, the conscience can be in error, and so faithful Catholics must make every effort to ‘educate’ or form their consciences according to the teachings of the Church,” said Dr. Chad Pecknold, a theology professor at The Catholic University of America and one of the signers of the Catholic petition against Trump.

Catholic teaching holds that the “right to life” is paramount. St. John Paul II described it as “the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights.” The bishops’ document stresses that the direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life “is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.”

“When a candidate supports abortion rights, or assisted suicide, the Catholic should have no doubt that this is opposed to the teaching of the Church, and should not vote for such a candidate,” said Pecknold.

However, beneath the life issue, “Faithful Citizenship” also lists a number of other moral issues of grave importance that must not be ignored.

“Racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, pornography, redefining civil marriage, compromising religious liberty, or an unjust immigration policy are all serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act,” the guide states.

Catholics may differ over “how best to respond to these and other compelling threats to human life and dignity,” it adds, but they “are urged to seriously consider Church teaching on these issues.”

It is on many of these issues that Catholics have raised concerns about Trump. While both major Democratic candidates — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders — are long-time abortion advocates and therefore problematic from a Catholic perspective, critiques of Trump are more nuanced.

For one, Trump’s plan to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants stands in sharp contrast to the U.S. bishops’ repeated call for comprehensive immigration reform that emphasizes family unity and includes an earned legalization program.

The business mogul also gained considerable attention for his assertion that “torture works” and his plan to kill the family members of terrorists. Although he later backtracked on these statements, critics voiced continuing concern over his willingness to commit war crimes and compromise human dignity.

Trump’s casino was the first in Atlantic City to have an in-house strip club. And while the GOP frontrunner says he opposes same-sex marriage, he has attracted criticism from defense-of-marriage groups who note that he has bragged in the past about having affairs with other married women and has made numerous explicit and degrading statements about women.

Furthermore, his proposal for an indefinite ban on allowing Muslims into the U.S. has drawn serious concern from legal experts who say it is a flagrant violation of religious liberty, endangering the fundamental right for other faiths as well.

And while the Catechism teaches that the death penalty should be restricted to cases in which it is the “only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor,” Trump wants to expand the use of capital punishment, making it the mandatory penalty for killing a police officer.

While Trump currently says that he is pro-life, he made strong pro-choice statement in 1999 and 2000. A few months ago, he said that his sister Maryanne Trump Barry would be an ideal Supreme Court nominee, despite her striking down New Jersey’s ban on partial-birth abortions as a judge. Several major pro-life groups have questioned Trump’s commitment to the pro-life cause, saying he “cannot be trusted.”

Other criticisms of Trump include what many see as disparaging comments and actions toward women, immigrants, minorities and Pope Francis.

What is a Catholic to make of all this? Moral theologians refrained from suggesting that Catholics should vote for any specific candidate, but agreed that Trump has supported many seriously troubling causes.

“The evidence is overwhelming that no Catholic who desires to be informed by the Church's teaching can vote for Donald Trump,” said Pecknold.

The case against Trump is two-fold, he continued. First, Trump’s platform is so “devoid” of “concrete or workable policy proposals” that it’s “simply unreasonable” to guess what he would actually do once in office, he said.

Secondly, “when it comes to the conscience,” Trump’s personal character and the persons or causes he has supported or received support from should be unacceptable to Catholic voters, he added.

“This is a man who, before any of his policies can be considered, should be seen as a false friend to the working class, and an enemy to the unborn, racial and religious minorities and the dignity of the human person generally,” Pecknold said.

Catholics should not vote for candidates “that they know will support and promote intrinsically evil acts,” Pecknold stressed. But in the event that both major candidates support intrinsic evils, Catholics must make a choice: take the “extraordinary step” of sitting out the election, vote for a third-party or write-in candidate with the knowledge that they have virtually no chance of winning, or “carefully deliberate about which candidate is less likely to pursue policies which promote intrinsically evil acts, and is more likely to achieve greater good.”

Fr. Thomas Petri, academic dean at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., added that when all available political candidates support intrinsically evil acts, “Faithful Citizenship” makes clear that the faithful are permitted to vote for the candidate whom they believe will “do less damage.”

“Catholics must be careful to understand the very grave and immoral positions that Trump espouses both politically and in his personal life. If they vote for him, it cannot be because of his partisanship or because of those grave immoral positions, but because a Catholic, in good conscience, after reviewing the situation, may believe that Trump is the lesser evil of all possible candidates,” Fr. Petri said.

“In this election cycle, should Clinton and Trump be the two nominees for the presidential election, Catholics must either not vote or choose one after serious and careful consideration,” he continued. “We Catholics are not permitted to vote for either flippantly or as a matter of routine.”

Stephen White, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., warned Catholics against voting for Trump simply to stop pro-abortion Hillary Clinton.

“A Trump presidency would be a disaster for life, the family, and religious freedom, and that’s before we get to Mr. Trump’s poisonous xenophobia,” he stated, adding that “Trump cares not a whit for Catholic concerns on these issues.”

“Trump is also a savvy negotiator,” he added, and could very well use pro-life and other good causes as trade bait in political negotiations with the opposing party.

“It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…but for Trump?” 

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