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The Catholic Church and the Presidential Election


The Catholic Church and the Election            Gerry OShea

The Pope Francis wing of the Catholic Church is happy with the Biden victory. The pope called the president-elect to congratulate him on his win and to wish him well in his plans to promote a progressive agenda. By all accounts they had a warm discussion about the crucial importance of addressing climate change and refugee issues.

In the recent election most members of the hierarchy in the United States strongly favored President Trump who boasted that no previous president could match his espousal of issues dear to the Catholic Church, specifically his positions on abortion and religious freedom.

Francis’ priorities as eloquently set forth in his encyclicals Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti stress a much wider moral agenda.

He highlights three issues that require urgent attention and which rarely figure in Republican talking points or indeed in Sunday sermons. The pope stresses that the climate crisis is worsening by the season and that it cries out for a serious international response. He gave the Paris Accord, signed by 196 nations in 2016, his enthusiastic benediction, calling it an important step in the right direction.

President Obama formally endorsed this agreement, but Donald Trump spoke of the whole climate crisis as a hoax and so he abrogated his predecessor’s commitment and withdrew the United States from any obligation to obey its provisions, greatly weakening the international pact. There was no outcry from the pulpit and the fact that most churchgoers showed little interest in the dismissal of Francis’ signature letter shows how tenuous the connection of many Catholics is to the present pope.

Second, Francis has led the world in urging leaders to deal humanely with the flood of refugees from war-torn countries. He preaches the clear biblical injunction from the Book of Exodus: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” President Trump and his Republican minions flouted this admonition and built a massive wall to keep refugees out. Francis eyed that ugly edifice on the Southern border and dismissed it as “un-Christian.”

The third area of serious papal disagreement with current American policy concerns the economic ideology pursued by the Trump administration. They subscribe to the trickle-down theory that can be seen clearly in their last budget where billions of dollars were given to the richest people while claiming that this largesse would somehow find its way down to the poor and working families.

Francis scoffs at what he calls this “magical” thinking, pointing out correctly that it never works, that the poor end up with empty pockets while those at the top luxuriate even more in their gifts from the government.

The pope will see considerable improvement in a Democratic administration. They will re-engage with the Paris Accord and the discredited trickle-down theory will be set aside with tax relief promised to ordinary workers and a guaranteed $15 an hour minimum wage on the horizon.

Dealing with the refugee crisis will remain a thorny matter for the new administration, but the cages on the border will be shut down and more humane policies will prevail, with a welcome end to the current unholy exclusion from America based on race or religious affiliation.

Francis’ ideas on how a Christian community should function are based on the pre-eminence of the common good in all facets of life. Even AOC’s or Senator Sanders’ political ideas would be somewhat to the right of Francis whom John Sununu, former Republican governor of New Hampshire and himself a Catholic, dismissively dubbed “an Argentine socialist.”

 The closest government policies to his teaching would be found in the Nordic countries where humane considerations in housing and education, as well as generous monetary help for those at the bottom of the ladder, accords best with Francis’ Christian priorities. Ironically, church attendance rates in those countries are the lowest in Europe.

Back to the bishops’ role in the American presidential election. The elephant-in-the-room issue of abortion looms large in the Catholic community. President Trump claims he had a Pauline conversion from being firmly pro-choice to eagerly carrying the flag for the millions of sincere people who oppose abortion in almost any circumstance.

While Francis’ opposition to this procedure is clear and unambiguous, he insists on preaching a wider pro-life sermon. He concurs with the Seamless Garment argument of Cardinal Bernardin, the late Archbishop of Chicago, who argued convincingly that pro-lifers lose their credibility unless “they support the powerless among us: the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker --- translated into (progressive) tax and welfare policies, nutrition and feeding programs and healthcare.”

The bishops in their message to Catholic voters named abortion as the “pre-eminent” issue that they should consider in deciding who to support, in effect an affirmative statement for Trump and the Republicans because Democrats adhere to a woman’s right to choose on this contentious matter. Some bishops, mostly Francis appointees, wanted to add a few sentences effectively widening the hierarchical advice to include the Bernardin Seamless Garment mandate. A clear majority of the bishops opposed including this change in the wording.

The informal alliance between the majority of the Catholic bishops and the Republican Party centers on the 1973 Roe v Wade decision which legalized abortion in the United States. This has been strenuously and credibly opposed by the Catholic bishops since that time. President Trump, who accused his opponent of “being against God and against guns,” has appointed three conservative judges to the Supreme Court, leading many commentators to predict that the clear majority on the right will end the Roe protection for the right of a woman to pregnancy termination.

Interestingly, two of these justices come from strong Irish-American Catholic families, Brett Kavanagh and Amy Barrett, and the third, Neil Gorsuch, was raised a Catholic. It looks like a 6 to 3 court with religious conservatives clearly in the ascendant.

However, in the event of the bishops’ wishes being satisfied by the top court, it is unclear whether returning the decision on the legality of abortion to each state will reduce the overall number of terminations.

The president-elect Joe Biden identifies himself as a staunch Irish Catholic. He accepts his church’s teaching on this matter, but he points out that he must govern a country where most people do not agree with his church’s teaching. It is an important distinction between the demands of his religion and his public duty.

This situation is complicated by the fact that polls show that a majority of Catholics - in numbers roughly commensurate with the wider American population - believe that the Roe decision should stand. Fr. James Martin, the Jesuit theologian, while not disagreeing with church teaching, suggested recently that the broad pro-life community should focus instead on ideas that would reduce the numbers of terminations by promoting government policies that support pregnant women and new mothers in areas like housing and medical care, keeping in mind that poor women account for 70% of abortions in the United States.

In 2008, Bishop John Ricard, the Superior-General of the Josephite Fathers, wrote to then-Senator Biden urging that he stay away from the communion rails because of his stance on abortion. A few other bishops chimed in supporting Ricard, and the president-elect was refused the Eucharist at the altar as late as on October 2019. After his inauguration he will continue to feel a cold shoulder from some prelates, but others, especially the bishops appointed by Francis, will look to him for enlightened legislation in the vital neglected area of social justice.

Early studies of the Catholic vote in the November election suggest that it split equally between the two candidates. Over 60% of white non-Hispanic Catholics opted for the incumbent, but more than two thirds of Latina preferences favored Biden, resulting in an even-split overall.

The deep disagreements pervading American society are reflected in profound and destabilizing differences within the Catholic Church.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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