On April 26, 2020 President Donald Trump held a conference call with over 600 Catholic leaders including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, our bishop, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles and other leaders in Catholic education. The president identified himself as the “best [president] in the history of the Catholic Church” where he warned that issues at stake in the upcoming presidential election, particularly abortion and religious liberty “have never been more important for the Church.”
After the call Cardinal Timothy Dolan came under a great deal of criticism by Catholic leaders for extolling the praises of the president for his “sensitivity to religious communities” in issues like Catholic education, salary assistance for churches and nonprofits, among other issues, including his handling of the Covid-19 epidemic.
The president has been highly criticized for his initial disbelief of the severity of the coronavirus and his late response that leaves no federal plan and the states competing with each other for testing equipment and protective clothing for medical personal. Ezekiel Emanuel, special adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization, told MSNBC he found “most” of what President Trump said at his briefing on the coronavirus “incoherent.”
In response to the Cardinal, more than one thousand Catholics, including leaders of prominent social justice organizations signed a letter to the Cardinal expressing outrage at his public displays of support.
They said, “Your recent phone call with President [Donald] Trump and appearance on Fox News sends a message that Catholic leaders have aligned themselves with a president who tears apart immigrant families, denies climate change, stokes racial division and supports economic policies that hurt the poor,” the letter states. “There is nothing ‘pro-life’ about the president’s agenda.”
All of this underlines the deep divisions in the US Catholic Church. On one hand it is quite understandable. More than eighty million Catholics in the United States is no monolith, but quite diverse and complex by many regions, cultural histories, and the sense of what it means to be Catholic in a pluralistic nation, often expressed through partisan politics. On the other hand, national populism has deepened our divisions along political lines motivated by vastly different views of faith and spirituality in and out of the church. We do not understand Jesus Christ in the same way, and that is the Catholic crisis. Not because we believe in Christ in different ways, but because we tend to compete with one another as sole purveyors of the truth.
Additionally, the majority of U.S. Catholics today can be characterized as secular Catholics. With this term, I refer to those with a Catholic heritage, however nominal, who cannot find Catholicism central to the everyday project of their lives and are in varying degrees of distance from what they take to be normative or prescribed Catholicism. These Catholics have mixed feelings about church concerns in this political year and will have a significant voice in the election.
In the last plenary assembly of the Catholic Bishops last November 2019 Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez said, ” [We] encourage Catholics to prioritize faith over partisan politics.” The Bishop’s document on “Faithful Citizenship” is basically a guide for American Catholics when they vote in 2020 that was recently revised to reflect the concerns of Pope Francis. It is a reminder, that the church supports immigrants and opposes abortion. The bishops are also stressing civility. It was revised to reflect more clearly the agenda of Pope Francis. “There will be debate, there will be disagreement, but always with respect for one another,” Arlington, Virginia, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge said.
All of this sounds fine, but most Catholics are completely unaware of these guidelines and many of their pastors are not helping them. It speaks eloquently of the great divide between the sanctuary and the pews. The authority of bishops have been waning since the late nineteen sixties, in part with the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on human life. Many left the church at that time over the controversaries regarding birth control. The secularization of church authority, which began with our Protestant friends, has taken hold in the Catholic Church since then.
This election year, with the coronavirus turning our worlds upside down, will be all about Covid-19. All other issues: immigration, global climate change, global solidarity, income inequality, sexual ethics, all through the lens of pro-life stances, may very well take second place. So, the next elections will be very unpredictable. But whatever happens, the Catholic impact on American politics is highly significant and worth pondering.
Jack Jenkins, reporter for Religious News Service, is considered one of the best reporters in his coverage of progressive religion in his new book, American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country. He chronicles, for example, the enactment of the Affordable Care Act (National health care system) of President Obama. Jenkin says: “If you ask people who were involved with the Affordable Care Act fight, Catholics didn’t just impact the public debate over the bill. They were a key reason it became law, full stop.”
The pandemic though has done much more than raise big questions about the future of this country and its ongoing political jostling. It has forced us to fathom the most important of things, each other and the earth, our common home. If our politics have failed to help us understand this, Covid-19 has succeeded. The death and illness of our loved ones and so many more, the utter devastation to our cultural and economic ways of life has brought home the point of how precious we are to one another. What kind of humanity will emerge as the pandemic wanes?
they say we’re at war
i think we’re falling in love
with the human race
Haiku poem – John Paul Lederac