Letter from America
Donald Trump is the best president in the history of the United States…or at least that’s what he told Catholic leaders on a conference call recently…
Twice during the month of April, the US President held conference calls with faith leaders – the first was a mix of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and the second, specifically for Catholics in a call that swelled to include some 600 participants, ostensibly to discuss the future of Catholic schools navigating an uncertain future due to the global pandemic.
Yet the call quickly devolved into a pep rally, with the president soliciting support for his re-election efforts. I obtained an audio recording of the meeting and over the course of the hour long call, the president wasn’t shy about ticking off what he views to be serious wins for the Catholic Church: two new justices to the Supreme Court whom he believes will eventually overturn Roe vs Wade, his in-person appearance at the March for Life last January, and his support of school choice programmes allowing parents to redirect their tax dollars in the form of tuition credits to Catholic and other private schools.
Remember this come November, he told Catholic leaders, warning what “the other side” would do if he’s not elected, before making the grandiose claim that no other president has been such an ally to the Catholic Church.
On the call were a handful of US bishops, and the remarks of Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York have garnered the most attention. Dolan, who lives just down the street from Trump Tower, is the only US prelate that the president has any real personal connection to and he’s effectively serving as the primary liaison between the White House and the US Catholic Church.
Cardinal Dolan, a naturally gregarious figure, praised the president for his leadership during the crisis – a claim that polling data suggests most Americans would take issue with these days. No serious Catholic commentator would say that the US bishops have no business being on such a call and that with declining enrolment and bleak economic prospects, the US bishops should take every opportunity they have to shore up support for Catholic schools, which are set to take a huge hit next academic school year.
Yet what’s divided many Catholics about this call is what some see as an unseemly chumminess with a president – who while delivering real wins for the tradition pro-life movement has been hypocritical in those committments through his divisive rhetoric toward migrants, his cruel policies of family separation at the US-Mexico border, and his indifference toward the rise of white nationalism.
Many Catholics fear that the president’s co-opting of a phone call meant to be a working discussion about education and to turn it into a campaign pitch was inappropriate and that the US bishops shouldn’t have hesitated to say so.
I’ve opined before in this column about the tightrope act that US Catholic leaders will face over the next six months as Donald Trump squares off against former vice-president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee. ‘Faithful Citizenship’, the official voting guidelines written by the US bishops, cautions that “we bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth.
“We recognise that the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience, and that participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election,” they continue.
Indeed. But when bishops sit on phone calls with the president of the US and say “we need you more than ever”, they should be reminded of their own wisdom in ‘Faithful Citizenship’.
After facing backlash for his remarks, Cardinal Dolan defended himself saying he’s following in the path of Pope Francis and merely engaging in bridge-building.
He went on to add that the US bishops have to work with whomever is in office, regardless of political affiliation and then cited the Italian expression that “you make gnocchi with the dough you have”.
Agreed. But when one is in the environs of a messy, chaotic kitchen, one also has to be careful of not getting burnt, as well.
Christopher White is the national correspondent for Crux and the Tablet newspaper of the diocese of Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @CWWhite212.