The days leading up to the feast of Christ the King provide Catholics an opportunity to gaze upon the post-electoral landscape and examine their consciences as participants in the disquieting experience of the 2016 presidential election. The campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have left a bitter mark on U.S. political life, exposing and exacerbating severe rifts in society that have run through communities and even families.
Despite Catholics making up more than a quarter of U.S. adults, the “Catholic vote” does not exist in any meaningful fashion to public discourse. The absence of Catholics as a bloc of voters determined to implement the Church’s social teaching in political life is proving to have negative consequences for the American body politic that will only get worse beyond the 2016 election.
No presidential campaign in recent memory has so divided the American people, according to Matthew Green, a political science professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. A New York Times/CBS News Poll found 8 out of 10 voters expressed revulsion at the electoral process. Majorities of Americans saw both Trump and Clinton as dishonest, and doubted either candidate could pull the country back together again.
But Republicans and Democrats each went through a process that left voters ultimately deciding between these two candidates. Historically, a majority of Catholics determine the winner. But they’re not determining the political trajectory — either of their parties or the country.
“Catholics are deeply divided,” Green said, adding that these divisions reflect the fault lines in American society.
A majority of Latino Catholics, for example, vote reliably Democratic. A majority of white Catholics vote Republican. But as Catholics trail behind the trajectory of their political parties, the likelihood of producing candidates in line with Catholic social teaching diminishes.
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., planned to roll out a conservative policy agenda informed by Catholic social teaching. Instead, the Speaker, now on the ropes with Republican rank-and-file, became eclipsed by Trump dominating the GOP primary. Trump’s campaign CEO, Steve Bannon, set his sights on removing Ryan from power over Ryan’s “rubbing his social justice Catholicism in my nose every second.”
Democrats likewise over the course of three decades progressively dismantled pro-life values from its social justice framework, eventually yielding Hillary Clinton, a candidate who championed family leave and paying for low-income people to abort their children with federal money. But no Catholic Democrat has waged a Bernie Sanders-style insurgent presidential campaign backed by the third of Democrats that identify as “pro-life” progressives.
The face-off between Trump and Clinton also drove divisions into local community life, families and friend circles, according to Mary Hasson, director of the Catholic Women’s Forum at the Ethics and Public Policy Center based in Washington, D.C. Hasson told Angelus News that the Church needs to prioritize “healing and reconciliation,” particularly through extending forgiveness and understanding. Then, she said, the Church needs to diagnose and address the factors driving the incoherent witness of Catholics across the political spectrum.
But the 2016 election also revealed fault lines running through the U.S. deeper than political ideology. The college educated experience economic success, social mobility, marriage and even lower abortion rates. But according to studies by the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project, the high-school educated are dropping out of the American middle class as families dissolve, jobs in their communities become scarce, health care becomes uncertain and housing costs skyrocket.
Patrick Deneen, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, told Angelus News that Americans no longer have a shared conviction that “everyone has a fair and good shot of moving up the economic ladder.”
The university professor said moving from D.C. to South Bend, Indiana, showed him just how those living outside D.C. and the affluent urban enclaves of the coastal states have a “very different experience of the American dream.” The 2008 recession is over on Wall Street, but for too many blue-collar worker communities, it never ended.
“The whole class issue is laid bare by this,” said William Cavanaugh, a professor of Catholic studies and director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University in Chicago.
Cavanaugh told Angelus News that Trump’s support drew from a working class that sensed it had been the victim of an economic system that did not have their good at heart, but wrote them off as casualties of globalization. Capital can easily cross borders, but workers can’t, Cavanaugh said. So as blue collar workers slipped into poverty, they watched a Chinese billionaire class grow on U.S. capital and laborers who would work long hours, live in cramped quarters and for monthly wages that approximate the cost of an iPhone 7.
The problem for the U.S. Catholic bishops, Cavanaugh said, is that they have lost credibility on social issues with the rank-and-file Catholics. Catholics perceive that the bishops emphasize certain issues over others, such as pro-life or social justice, so they in turn do not accept the “consistent ethic of life.”
Rending Catholic teaching gets social justice nowhere
The path that led to Trump and Clinton as Catholics’ main choices was laid out over the past few decades as Catholics divided the social teaching between the GOP and the Democratic Party, the “two main options in America,” explained Deneen at Notre Dame. But Catholics have only ended up compromising on the dignity of the human person, and rationalized away the inconsistency with their faith by staking out certain issues of Catholic social teaching as “non-negotiables,” and others as “prudential decisions.”
The principles and the issues involving the dignity of the human person, Deneen explained, are not up for negotiation. Instead, Catholics have a duty to apply those principles of Catholic social teaching to the common good, and figure out the most prudential path to achieving those social issues.
“We have a very poor catechesis not just at the level of faith, but in Catholic social teaching,” he said.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life,” authored by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2002, stated that abortion, euthanasia, “the basic right to life from conception to natural death,” the family, society’s protection of minors, parents’ right to have their children educated, modern forms of slavery (including drug abuse and prostitution), religious freedom, peace and “development of an economy that is at the service of the human person and of the common good” were among the “fundamental and inalienable ethical demands” placed on Christians participating in democratic political life.
Ironically, Deneen said, the immigrant American Church achieved its long-held dream of assimilating into American society, but at the “loss of Catholic witness.”
Instead, Catholics follow their political leaders over the Church’s teachers. Conservative Catholic leaders, who had praised St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI (then-Cardinal Ratzinger) on their defense of morality, wrote articles urging Catholics in 2003 and afterward to support President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, leading to the near destruction of Iraq’s Christian population. But once President Obama was the leader, progressive Catholics quieted their opposition to war, as U.S. drones, airpower and arms deals turned more countries into war zones.
But Cavanaugh pointed out that both parties leverage Catholics’ compromise on social teaching against them, because the leadership knows these issues secure their votes. Republicans controlled the White House and Congress from 2005 to 2007 — however, they failed to advance major pro-life legislation, such as defunding Planned Parenthood or making the Hyde Amendment permanent and government-wide. On marriage, House Republicans never took a floor vote on a measure (designed to prevent the Supreme Court from redefining marriage) by using their constitutional power to remove their appellate jurisdiction from state marriage laws.
Congress, however, did find time in 2005 to reform bankruptcy laws — legislation Clinton backed at the time — making all student loans, federal and private, impossible to discharge like other debts in bankruptcy. Today student loan debt exceeds $1.3 trillion.
When Democrats had total control of the White House and Congress from 2009 to 2011, they failed to deliver bipartisan immigration reform. Nearly eight years later, more than 11 million immigrants without legal status still face economic exploitation and family breakup via deportation.
The inconsistent Catholic witness to the dignity of the human person also damaged the credibility of a number of groups on the right and the left during this election.
WikiLeaks email revelations that the Clinton campaign internally discussed a “Catholic spring” that would undermine the teaching authority of the U.S. bishops using left-of-center Catholic groups, tarnished the credibility of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United.
Jacqueline Rivers, executive director and senior fellow of Harvard University’s Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies, was among a coalition of black Church leaders who described the action as a threat to all churches’ religious freedom, in a letter that took Clinton to task for failing to take the concerns and moral values of black voters seriously.
Rivers, who is pro-life, criticized the failure of black Church leaders to hold Democrats to account for embracing policy positions opposed to the biblical truths on the dignity of human life, sexuality and marriage. But she added that many pro-life and Christian leaders damaged the credibility of their public witness by personally endorsing Donald Trump and failing to “hold his feet to the fire.”
The pro-life movement’s cultural credibility depends on its reputation as “pro-woman” and “pro-child.” But Trump’s pro-life advisory council was hardly to be found defending the dignity of women, as some of them had done during the primary, when Trump told millions of followers via Twitter to search for an alleged sex-tape of a Latina woman who criticized him, or was caught on an Access Hollywood tape bragging he could grab women by their genitals without asking first — which he later dismissed as “locker room talk.”
Neither Susan B. Anthony List nor National Right to Life Committee issued any public statement denouncing these actions. Urgent pleas for pro-life unity after the election from Students for Life of America to its social media accounts indicates a substantial number of people in pro-life apostolates are angry that pro-life political leaders have given abortion rights supporters an opportunity to label the movement’s commitment to women as “window dressing.”
Rivers said that pro-life organizations’ failure to stand for the dignity of the human person consistently have made it much more difficult to recruit black and Latino voters into the pro-life movement.
“He devalued human life in the very [nonrespectful] way he spoke about immigrants and black voters,” she added.
Rivers said she could empathize with the fact that many people felt they had to vote for Trump over his stated commitments around life, marriage and the expectation that he might keep his word and nominate someone to the U.S. Supreme Court that shared their values. She said the people of God ought to be “genuinely independent,” and not beholden to “political allegiances” if they are to make the Lord’s kingdom visible on earth.
“We have to hold them accountable,” she said. “Each of us Christians has to really examine our consciences, and ask whether we are living by the principles to which we have been called.”
Changing the way
Catholics have to broaden their understanding of their vocation to engage in political life, according to Cavanaugh.
“There’s a problem with thinking that our political presence is the way we vote,” he said.
Cavanaugh said Catholics on the left and the right have put too much emphasis on trying to affect change through laws. They have not invested themselves enough in seeking to affect cultural and social change at the local level necessary to sustain the legislative or judicial routes.
He indicated that Catholics need to pour more resources into building the culture of life in their own local communities by addressing the factors that are putting women and families into crisis where abortion looks like a solution, or providing solutions that make abortion unthinkable. The approach would save more lives and repair more families than waiting for the right constellation of judges to overturn Roe v. Wade.
But the engagement in political life needs to be local and continual if the Church is going to form Catholics that will challenge the political parties and draw them back to the center of Catholic social teaching.
On immigration, Cavanaugh said the local churches could mobilize people to write Congress to change the law. Or parishes could mobilize their faithful to do something about the world’s unprecedented refugee crisis by volunteering to take in a family.
But he said Catholics have to treat engagement with their faith in political life as their “local and everyday” vocation. When the Church’s members consistently act on applying their faith to life, they will actually make a healthy difference to the political trajectory.
“What really moves people’s hearts is when Church people do something rather than just talk,” he said.
Advancing the kingdom
Getting a Catholic political revolution, where faith, not party allegiance or ideology, drives authentic political engagement means the Church will have to actively engage in catechizing people so they get the full picture of the faith and the Church’s social doctrine.
“The majority of Catholic parents do not attend Church regularly, nor do they educate their children in the faith,” Mary Hasson said, “so it’s no surprise, really, that we are not seeing Catholic values brought forward into questions of public policy.”
According to research from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, 68 percent of Catholic parents currently do not have their kids enrolled in any form of Catholic education. While 76 percent of parents say they pray as individuals, only 7 percent said that they pray together as families and most families do not attend Mass weekly.
“Part of reshaping the culture needs to start from within — by helping families embrace their faith as the most significant part of their lives — and then forming them so they live, and vote accordingly,” Hasson said. “We have a lot of work ahead.”
Pia de Solenni, professor of moral theology and associate dean at the Augustine Institute’s campus in Orange County, California, also said that now is not the time to “throw the towel in.”
De Solenni observed that the political and social trajectory of the country will get worse if Catholics further disengage from active political life. The Church needs to actively engage in taking a “more holistic view of formation and education” of Catholic political participation beyond the bishops speaking out near Election Day. Regardless of their political affiliation, de Solenni said Catholics view faith “as an appendage” to their life, and their politics as “more real.”
But the Catholic vocation in political life cannot be met by voting — and de Solenni pointed out that the low voter participation overall shows that minimal threshold is not being met.
The dynamic can only change by teaching Catholics about the totality of their faith, and helping them “grow in virtue and holiness.”