Trump's election: What it means for the USCCB and the church

This article appears in the USCCB Fall 2016 feature series. View the full series.

Last week, I wrote about how the election of Donald Trump as our next president challenges both parties. Today, as the bishops gather in Baltimore for their annual plenary meeting, it is worth asking what Mr. Trump's election means for the USCCB and for the Catholic church more generally.

We have already received two wildly different reactions. In Los Angeles, Archbishop Jose Gomez preached at an interfaith prayer service. "In the past couple days since the election — we have children in our schools who are scared. They think the government is going to come and deport their parents, any day now," Gomez said. "Right now — all across this city, and in cities all across this country — there are children who are going to bed scared. There are men and women who can't sleep because they are trying to figure out what to do next. Trying to figure what to do when the government comes to take them away from their kids and their loved ones. En los últimos días, como todos sabemos, muchos de nuestros hermanos y hermanas, adultos y niños están temerosos pensando que los van a deportar y por tanto separarlos de sus familias. This should not be happening in America. We are not this kind of people. We are better than this." Alas, the election results make that last assertion, that we are better than this, doubtful.

On the other hand, Cardinal Raymond Burke gave an interview to the National Catholic Register in which he pronounced himself satisfied with the result. "Exactly; what he [Trump] has said about pro-life issues, family issues and also issues regarding religious freedom shows a great disposition to hear the Church on these matters and to understand that these are fundamentally questions of the moral law, not questions of religious confession," the cardinal said. Well, when I heard Trump brag about sexually assaulting a woman, and twice repeating that she was married and not to him, making the attempt to get her all the more exciting, I did not hear an endorsement of what the church teaches on these matters. Maybe the cardinal, who has plenty of time on his hands, had time to study the famous hot mic videotape and saw something that escaped me.

The conference is divided. And the country is divided. Over the next four years, there will be many different ways of framing those divisions, but let me suggest the bishops contemplate one particular frame as they begin their deliberations: Pope Francis or President Trump? You choose. On issue after issue, the Holy Father has set forward a moral vision for the church and that vision could scarcely be more different from that offered by Mr. Trump at his raucous rallies.

Trump began his campaign by suggesting most Mexican immigrants were rapists and criminals. "And some, I assume, are good people," he said. Some? Gee, I hope he thinks Archbishop Gomez is a good person. The most consistent chant at his rallies, spurred on by the candidate, was "build the wall." Will the U.S. bishops, in unison and as a conference, follow the lead of Pope Francis and put concern for migrants and refugees at the top of the list of their moral concerns, or will they set that aside in hopes that Trump appoints a conservative Supreme Court justice?

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Pope Francis made the environment the centerpiece of his social encyclical, Laudato Sí. In the face of efforts to frustrate any action to ameliorate climate change, well-funded efforts with a ton of money coming from the extraction industries, it finally seemed in the last couple of years that there was movement, that the world was finally starting to take steps to address this issue. Now? Trump has promised to bring back coal plants. Trump has said he doubts the science of climate change. Trump has promised to rollback regulations that help protect the environment, and you can bet the new regulations will be written by the very industries those regulations are meant to tame. On this priority issue for Pope Francis, is there any doubt that we are about to take major steps backwards? Will the U.S. bishops stand with the pope? In his post-election statement, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the president of the USCCB, did not mention climate change or environmental degradation.

The Holy Father's indictment of contemporary capitalism was unlikely to be shared in any deep way by a Clinton administration, but in a Trump White House, the problems the pope identifies are likely to get worse. The pope consistently worries about an "economy of exclusion," while Trump refers to the excluded as "losers." The pope warns about the social evils that find their roots in inequality, and Trump has lived at the high end of the economic landscape with no discernable qualms for all of his life. Pope Francis persistently denounces the idolatry of money, and for the president-elect, the only idol that rivals money is himself. Trump's voters like nostalgia, and perhaps his penchant for putting his own name on buildings reminded them of Pope Paul V Borghese, who put his name on the front of St. Peter's Basilica.

Our conservative Catholic friends reply that all is forgiven provided he puts conservative justices on the Supreme Court. We have heard that promise before from Republican presidents, yet Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. I will venture to bet that on Jan. 20, 2021, it will still be the law of the land. There may be some tweaking of laws regarding abortion, as happens whenever the White House changes hands, but I would be surprised if the abortion rate in America is vastly different at the end of Trump's tenure than it is at the end of President Obama's. And even if Roe were overturned, are we prepared for the backlash? The movement to stop or at least restrict abortion was finally becoming a movement in which concern for the pregnant woman was evident. Our next president is an unlikely champion of women.

Which leads to a final issue for the bishops to consider as they gather in the ballroom in Baltimore: Many women, with obvious justification, feel that the country was willing to look the other way when it came to Trump's misogyny and worse than misogyny. Catholic bishops often get all twisted in knots when discussing the role of women in the church, but there is no reason to get confused about the role of women in society: They should be treated with dignity, respect and equality. It is an interesting fact of Trump's business career that he often surrounds himself with powerful women. But, a president also sends powerful cultural signals about what is, and is not, acceptable behavior. Women are right to worry that Trump's penchant for demeaning them will erode the progress they have made. The bishops must find ways to affirm their respect for women and do so as loudly as they can.

Pope Francis or President Trump? Of course, depending on the personal interests of the prelate, most bishops spend as little as five percent of their time swimming in the waters where politics and religion intersect, the waters which mostly concern this blog. For some, that percentage may go up to the mid-teens. They have to know how the new pastor at St. Bartholomew's is working out and how Catholic Charities will pay for the new food truck and whether the Catholic school tuition is too high. Still, when they do turn to the intersection of religion and politics, the choice will be clear, Francis or Trump? I do not know whether to laugh or cry, but it is a remarkable fact that even one of the U.S. bishops and there are more than one, and certainly some of the loudest among them, are inclined to side with Trump. Cardinal Burke is an outlier, but he is not alone. And the rest of the bishops need to speak with sufficient unity and vehemence to drown out the noise coming from the Trumpistas.

For the Catholic laity, I recommend this essay by Leon Wieseltier published in yesterday's Outlook section of The Washington Post. His argument for democratic resistance is on target: "Difficult times are giving way to dark times, and dark times require a special lucidity and a special vigilance and a special ferocity about principle," he writes. Indeed. It is wrong for bishops to join any generic opposition, although the bishops should stand firm against further demonization of immigrants and certainly against any policy that seeks to harm them more than they have already been harmed by life. But it is emphatically the task of the Catholic laity to object, consistently, on principle, as loudly as necessary, day in and day out. Trump has earned democratic legitimacy, but that is not the same thing as moral legitimacy, and it is the job of morally astute citizens to object when he spews hate or even when he fails to confront the hate his campaign fomented. It is time to remind our fellow Americans of what truly makes us great, our capacity to welcome people from all lands and let their presence in our midst become that new birth of freedom which alone renews the promise of America.


Related, US bishops meeting in Baltimore:

US bishops' conference to vote on new leadership

In response to Trump, Vatican official says church should be prophetic

Previewing the USCCB meeting: the good the conference achieves By Michael Sean Winters

A Francis agenda for the US bishops By Fr. Tom Reese SJ

Trump's election: What it means for the USCCB and the Church By Michael Sean Winters

Previewing the USCCB meeting: Will there be a new direction? By Michael Sean Winters

Read all of NCR reporting about the Fall 2016 meeting here.


[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]


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