Trump v Clinton matchup has Catholic leaders scrambling

Michael O’Loughlin

With the general election matchup coming into focus, some Catholic leaders in the US find themselves scrambling to figure out what to make of a race between one candidate whose views on immigration clash with decades of Catholic pro-immigration work, and another who supports same-sex marriage and expanded access to abortion and contraception.

Whereas Republicans have relied on conservative Catholics for decades, some have pre-emptively said they aren’t on board with Trump – at least not yet. The group CatholicVote, for example, a conservative political organisation that endorsed Senator Ted Cruz in March, reacted to Donald Trump’s status as the presumptive Republican nominee with foreboding.

A statement released last week suggested that his campaign could have “disastrous consequences” for the country.

“Until recently Trump was publicly pro-abortion and a major financier of the enemies of the Church,” the statement said. “His character and moral judgement remain suspect. He denigrates and ridicules his opponents, and has no foundational principles from which he proposes to govern.”

But they were clear that voting for Trump’s opponent was not an option, either.

“The American family will have no bigger enemy than a President Hillary Clinton and the wreckage she will impose on us from Washington DC,” it continued. “Hillary Clinton must be opposed by every conscientious Catholic voter.”

So CatholicVote is instead urging its members to shift focus to down-ballot races. “While everyone is focused on the White House, there remain 435 House and 34 Senate elections on the ballot — including thousands of other important state and local races,” the post said.

“CatholicVote will now shift our strategy and resources to four or five critical Senate races along with as many as 10+ House seats. Catholic voters in these states will be pivotal to the outcome of these races.”

Their strategy isn’t without merit, as some Republican house and Senate candidates in toss-up states fear Trump may negatively impact their races. Some politicians have engaged in verbal gymnastics to explain how they’ll approach Trump.

In New Hampshire, Senator Kelly Ayotte, facing a challenge from a popular Democratic governor, said she will “support” but not “endorse” Trump. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who speaks frequently of his Catholic faith, said in a CNN interview that he was “not ready” to support Trump – but that he hopes he can eventually.

Other prominent Republicans, including 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, have said they will skip the GOP convention this summer.


Conservative Catholics aren’t the only Christians questioning their loyalty to the GOP. Prominent Evangelical leaders have gone on the offensive against Trump, including Russell Moore, head of the influential Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

In an essay published in the New York Times last Friday, Moore said Trump’s campaign “is forcing American Christians to grapple with some scary realities that will have implications for years to come”, especially around issues of race.

“A white American Christian who disregards nativist language is in for a shock,” he wrote. “The man on the throne in Heaven is a dark-skinned, Aramaic-speaking ‘foreigner’ who is probably not all that impressed by chants of ‘Make America great again!’”

From the left, some Catholics have called attention to Trump’s immigration rhetoric, signing a statement last week calling his candidacy “a moral and theological crisis”.

“Trump is shamelessly using racial resentment, fear, and hatred – always dangerously present in our society – to fuel a movement against ‘the other,’ targeting other races, women, cultures, ethnicities, nations, creeds and a whole global religion,” the statement, titled ‘Called to Resist’, reads.

Catholic signatories to the letter include the popular spirituality writer, Fr Richard Rohr; former Catholics for Obama co-chair and Catholic University professor Steve Schenck; and Marie Dennis, co-president, Pax Christi International.

Miguel Diaz, who served as US Ambassador to the Vatican under President Barack Obama, said he found it bewildering that any Catholic leader could embrace Trump.

“No one seeking service in the highest office of this land deserves to be elected if he or she has a record of practicing any form of xenophobia, sexism, religious intolerance, and fundamental disregard for the God-given dignity of all persons and creation,” said Diaz, now the John Courtney Murray University Chair at Loyola University Chicago.

“More than ever, we must elect global leaders capable of addressing these challenges,” he continued. “Such leaders must be capable of building bridges, rather than walls, within our common home.”

As the election progresses, it’s unlikely that the Catholic hierarchy will weigh-in on the specific candidates. But some bishops have spoken out on issues important to the Church, including immigration, in comments that seem aimed at Trump.

Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester, for example, said recently that the political conversation about immigration had turned ugly. “I think some of the rhetoric coming out of this campaign is deplorable,” Wester told the Associated Press. “It’s scapegoating and targeting people like the immigrant, the refugee and the poor.”


Chicago’s Archbishop Blase Cupich, meanwhile, said in an interview with PBS affiliate WTTW that he respected the choice of the voters in choosing Trump – but that he’d keep a close eye on how the campaigns proceed.

“I’m not troubled by [Trump’s success] because we live in a democracy and you have to respect the vote of the people,” he said.

“Am I going to watch very carefully the debate that goes forward on the issues that are important to me, like immigration, for instance? Yes. And life issues? Yes.”