At Least One Direct Line From Catholic Bishops To Mr. Trump

Not every vector that led to this election’s outcome originated in white privilege, distrust of a female leader, contempt for women’s bodies, or nativist aggrievement. But some trajectories did; some were launched from the shadow spaces of human nature.

People who claim Jesus’ Gospel cannot ignore those vectors. Catholic Moral Theology has a lot to say about all these vectors.

We must name them, resist them, and protect our blessed country from them. There are other reasons that voters made this choice: desire for change, distrust of institutions, and failure of leadership in the legal, legislative and financial sectors of our land. Some of these cluster together, the different strands are hard to untangle. But let me suggest one very direct line: the path between the failure of authority in the institutional Catholic Church and the large number of Catholics who voted against Christian values.

I am a sorrowful American these days. But more than that I am a profoundly sad Catholic precisely because this great moral tradition that richly ponders the relationship between Jesus’ Gospel and specific personal and social choices was largely silent during the campaign.

Many of our institutional Catholic leaders were mostly silent in the face of very clear violations of the central ethical demands of the Judeo-Christian Tradition. No violation was more glaring than the robust deceit and lying that saturated the Republican nominee’s campaign. To borrow a line about voter fraud, (of which there is almost none), the Republican surrogates lied early and often. “Thou shall not bear false witness…” is one of the Living God’s formative requirements. Truth telling is required if the human community expects to become a holy people and not just a cluster of alienated tribes.

The voice of the U.S. Catholic bishops that once spoke so bravely about economic justice, war and peace, and the death penalty was largely silent about the racism, sexism, and xenophobia that began as craftily targeted trickles and became fast-moving tributaries. Streaming water changes landscapes. These new rivers of venom have changed ours.

Moral teaching is often framed by “thou shall nots.” However, it also demands actions, behaviors. The followers of Jesus are compelled to respond to moral failures with care, attention, and work as well as with resistance. The genius of Jesus and of his Jewish ancestral giants was their discerning capacity to identify the right-relationship that was either missing-from or invited-by a given situation. Do our actions originate in love and hope or do they begin in hatred and despair? Do we act out of gratitude or resentment?

Catholic Moral Teaching answers to those “Thou shall nots,” “requirements,” those “commandments.” Had bishops not been shielding predators for decades, would Catholics have voted for a liar who treats women as objects and immigrants as hostile strangers? I am surely not making the claim that every Republican who voted as such did so from those directions. But it is a lie to deny that many votes flowed from attitudes that subvert or deny the human dignity of all human persons. It is a lie to say that all Trump votes support the deeply humane notion of the common good. Many did not. We must not forget that.

Protecting the vulnerable is one of the pillars of the Judeo-Christian Tradition. Many Catholic leaders have had a lot to say about the vulnerability of the unborn. Indeed. But there are other vulnerable ones.

So are young women. One positive outcome of our re-configured landscape is that women have begun to speak openly about the pervasive objectification of our bodies. If we Catholics have learned anything from the leadership crisis it is the power of “keeping quiet.” So here is my contribution. The first time my body was treated as an object was at my first high school dance where, while I was standing watching, a senior boy approached me. Without a word, he ran his hand all the way up to the inside top of my 15 year-old-leg.

Black and brown boys are vulnerable. For too many of them the police are a threat rather than those who “serve and protect.” So are other small brown children in the San Francisco Bay area where I live, who are afraid their parents will be deported.

Vulnerable too are young Jewish parents who thought Anti-Semitism was like smallpox in their lifetime: wiped-out, only to see it given robust voice once again by the leader of the Republican campaign.

Vulnerable too are professional women who have heard for decades that Hillary is a hard-working, fair public servant who builds the politics of the possible. One more reminder that no matter how hard we work, more often than not, a man will get the promotion and is already making more salary for the same work.

This election season there were so many opportunities for Catholic institutional leaders to provide guidance, wisdom, and challenge to American Catholics. They mostly failed and it is because of their previous institutional failure.

So what to do? The first item on my “to do” list is to give things their proper names. Our times require the nomenclature of both malice and justice. We must be very alert to both.

You may have noticed that I do not call the bishops’ failure “the Abuse Crisis.” I have no intention to minimize the acts of rape by calling them something else; but I do intend to try to apply the wisdom of the Sacrament of Reconciliation to this terrible sin of so many Catholic leaders. The true “name” of the sin was the sin of lying. They lied in so many ways to protect guilty priests. The “crisis” is the Bishops’ Deceit Crisis. The purpose of their authority is to serve the Christian Life. You cannot serve the Christian life if you are lying. Truth matters. Children were raped. We do need to say that. But the lying that enabled the rape is the deepest failure of the Church leaders.

“Catholic guilt” is a commonplace. That term harkens to a shrunken notion of the Catholic practice of Confession (now properly called Reconciliation, the confession of sins being just one movement in the sacrament). Reconciliation as liturgical action provides a way for the wisdom of the Church to help a person identify where she or he is falling short in the service to the Living God. Bringing our sins, that is, those actions that have damaged relationships, to a wise pastor allows that wisdom to help us. The ”confession,” that is, the naming of the sin, is very important because it is very easy for us to lie to ourselves. We are easily blind to selfishness, resentment, and fears that simmer so softly that we are unaware of their power and presence. Catholics used to rely on this sacrament as an intense location of moral guidance. Not so much anymore. But the need for such guidance has not diminished.

Failure of leadership is never neutral; others will move into the space. In the absence of episcopal leadership, many Catholics find robust guidance in their local priests. However, in many parts of the country parish life has suffered because of the leadership crisis. For many Catholics, their primary institutional commitment is through a Catholic school or university where they send their children. The leaders in these institutions have filled in the pastoral space for many Catholics. People such as a child’s retreat leader, the Principal, Chair of the Religion Department, a faithful coach or choir director, a U.S. History teacher who lives and breathes the Catholic Social Justice Tradition: these are the leaders who have moved into the role of the parish priest.

I have been leading an adult education program at the Sacred Heart Schools, in Atherton CA since 2006. This group of women meets weekly to deepen their understanding of the Catholic tradition. They rarely look to the bishops’ voices for guidance, but they trust the former Principal and Director of Schools, both laymen. They look to these men for pastoral care and Christian wisdom. James and Rich are 21st century versions of Father O’Malley from “Going My Way.” However, they do not answer directly to the bishop; and they both have families. They are the faces of both the present and the future of Catholic leadership that has not failed to answer to the Gospel. They have not failed to protect the vulnerable. Far from it. They guard the important work of Catholic education both by keeping the classroom alive and making sure the widest range of people is able to receive the gift of a Catholic education.

Just like water, the need for leadership will find its level. While the institutional church is still floundering, there is robust leadership alive in other corners of the Church. There is another strong local example from Santa Clara, the President, Michael Engh. After the election he sent a letter to the Santa Clara Community re-affirming the mission of our Catholic university. It read in part,

“I believe it essential to repeat and reinforce a message of inclusion and respect for people of all traditions, orientations, gender, and legal status. We are members of a community, a family, and we embrace strong Jesuit values of concern for those who suffer, the quest for a better world, and a respect for each individual as a child of God. These beliefs permeate our programs, our services, and our actions.”

There you have it: human dignity, the common good and care for the vulnerable in a Jesuit university key. These are strong institutional Catholic voices and yet they do not have the national influence that the U.S. Bishops used to have.

There used to be robust dialogue between Catholic leaders and the coherent voices from the wider culture. That dialogue has also been fractured. Our institutional Church will need to rebuild that trust. In addition to listening to voices from the Mikes, and James, and Riches of our Catholic institutions, we must be on the hunt for the truth-tellers in the wider culture. The wider culture has always been the Church’s best resource.

During a time when we needed truth telling from our religious leaders, it was missing. And we know that many journalists failed us in the same spectacular way. But as in the Church, journalism had its own truth-tellers along the way. Two of those who stood in as civic pastors for me were David Remnick and Adam Gopnik. Early on, Mr. Gopnik described the nominee with clear-sighted realism. “This is a bad man,” he wrote after the first debate. And his Editor, David Remnick, just a week after the election said on CNN:

“When I hear him described as not a sexist, not a racist, not playing on white fears, not arousing hate. When he’s described in a kind of normalized way as someone in possession of policy knowledge, as someone who’s somehow in the acceptable range of rhetoric, I think I’m hallucinating and I fear for our country.”

That is truth telling. We used to hear such talk from our institutional religious leaders. We need to be vigilant in tracing these un-American and inhumane creeds back to their sources. We must follow the trails that have brought us to this frightening place. Whether from toxin or honest sorrows, we must identify the motivations that brought us here. We must inspect them, explore them, diagnose, and treat them. Our appraisal must be informed and discerning. Our capacity for moral judgment requires that we take the measure of what is happening. We need competent authorities both inside and outside of the Church to guide us.

President Lincoln famously asked us to take up “the great task remaining before us,” and in so doing, re-invigorated the values in our Declaration of Independence. We must re-invigorate all those institutions that have either neglected or failed us as a people. Our commitment to human dignity and justice has been fractured. We must repair it. Like Remnick and Gopnik, we must be vigilant about naming liars. In the task of rebuilding, we are all companions and that is the truth.