A recent survey jointly conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service reveals that Catholics, more than any other religious group, have suffered the largest exodus from the church. While nearly one third (31 percent) of Americans say they were raised Catholic, just 21 percent identify as Catholic today — a 10 percent decline overall. The church’s treatment of LGBT people and the sexual abuse scandals clearly have exacted a heavy toll. Perhaps when we look back, the next significant alienation of Catholics might be traced to the church’s lack of moral clarity in relation to the politics of our time.
Everyone understands that the Church, as a nonprofit, cannot intervene in any political campaign. Never mind that it has intervened conspicuously on marriage equality and on a woman’s right to manage her own body. The positions bishops took, through pastoral letters and through their alignment with those who fought marriage equality, and the Affordable Care Act, made it clear that they have long seen the Republican Party as the party of traditional marriage and the policing of women’s wombs. These remain the non-negotiable core issues of the Church. The shredding of the fabric of civility that should undergird our political discourse, the abandonment of adherence to basic norms of courtesy, and the self-confessed sexually predatory behavior of Donald J. Trump have not attracted the same kind of moral certitude from the bishops that we have heard often on reproductive rights and marriage equality.
Guidance on voting
The recent (Oct 21) issue of the Hawaii Catholic Herald has a full page devoted to the question “To vote or not to vote: How are Catholics, especially in this year’s turbulent electoral climate, to respond at the polls as voters in faith?” How is it even possible that in a state where voter turnout is exceptionally low, not voting is presented as an option? Dorothy Day is cited as an example of “one Catholic who opted because of principle not to vote.” Let’s be clear: Dorothy Day lived a life of intense civic engagement, including demonstrating for the right of women and African Americans to vote. Yes, Dorothy Day herself chose not to vote. But even people on the path to sainthood can be wrong on some things.
The White House is in danger of being occupied by someone whose ideas are a toxic stew of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, narcissism and self-interest. We are called, Catholics or not, to do everything in our power to keep that from happening. We can wish that the options were better. But politics is about being pragmatic in dealing with the situation at hand, not opting out because our first choices are not available.
In the interest of preserving democracy and the norms that hold our imperfect society together, we have a moral obligation to vote. Let’s not invoke Dorothy Day to opt out of our obligation to reject a manifestly un-Christian, un-American candidate who has stoked division and who has demonstrated repeatedly his capacity for denying his very own words and actions, even those caught on camera. Yes, his opponent is flawed –- but there is no equivalence here.
As a Catholic who would have liked to be voting for Bernie Sanders, I have cast my vote for Hillary Clinton without a shred of hesitation. The alternative is too horrible, too immoral and too dangerous to even contemplate. Donald Trump disrespects life in every possible way: he derides the poor and the vulnerable; he mocks the disabled; he attacks Muslims, women, Mexicans; he celebrates dictators and promises to emulate their example by undermining democracy, encouraging violence and ignoring the rule of law. He has no time or capacity for the common courtesies and rules of decorum that come with high office or with just being a human being who has a conscience—because he appears not to have one. He rattles sabres and threatens revenge.
How does Trump pass the Church’s litmus test of being “pro-life?” How do Catholics who say they are “pro-life” justify supporting a candidate who repeatedly and publicly rips the heart out of what the Gospel teaches, and who barely pays lip service to their faith?
Earlier this year a group of conservative Catholic commentators signed a letter declaring Trump “manifestly unfit to be president of the United States.” Clearly, Catholics are doing more than just following the bishops’ election guide or choosing not to vote. They are letting their vote speak for Gospel values, their sense of decency, and their conscience with a clarity that has been missing from the bishops — and from high profile Catholics who stand with Trump.