Last year, many Catholic bishops and cardinals essentially made a Faustian bargain: They were willing to join hands with a Republican presidential candidate with no discernible moral compass in exchange for one priority: tightening restrictions on legal abortion and denying access to birth control to millions of poor women.
It was not a move that should have shocked anyone. For decades, the institutional church in the U.S. has been obsessed with reining in the reproductive rights of all women. Catholic bishops have made clear their desire to impose their version of Catholic values on everybody.
But the damage from their narrow vision is beginning to accumulate.
Earlier this year, the United States abandoned stewardship of the planet by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and rolling back environmental protections.The health of the planet is such an overriding moral issue for the pope that he has declared indifference to the destruction of the environment one of the “sins against creation.”
Now, as immigrants are being deported, the new administration proposes draconian budget cuts to programs serving the poor, and White Supremacists and neo-Nazis feel emboldened to march openly on college campuses, the hierarchy may be beginning to wake up. Catholic leaders reportedly are realizing that the presence of a few high-profile Catholics in the White House does not translate into having much influence on the administration’s agenda.
This should come as no surprise. Candidate Donald Trump did not hide his policy priorities during the campaign. Nor should the Catholic bishops have been shocked that as president, it was so difficult for Trump to draw a sharp distinction between Americans who support racial justice and civil rights, and those whose rhetoric is one of hate and exclusion.
This should have been a no-brainer for Catholic leaders. They should have directly addressed the president’s inadequate response to the events in Charlottesville. Yes, they condemned the violence and racism, but they were silent about the president’s rhetoric. Indeed, the lack of moral outrage among many Christian faith leaders was so blatant, it fell to several corporate executives to speak out.
Pope Francis cannot be happy with this turn of events. Weeks before Charlottesville, a Catholic journal close to the Vatican published an essay by two authors reportedly close to Francis.The essay accused conservative pro-Trump Catholics of complicity in an “alliance of hate.”
Yet it is not hard to understand why so many white non-Hispanic Catholics voted for this president. Last year, Catholic leaders in the U.S. seemed to have endless tolerance for the escapades of Trump and his conservative Catholic allies. Given conservative Catholics’ obsession with sexual morality, this was pretty shocking.
A week after the public release of Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, in which he bragged about grabbing women’s private parts, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan saw no reason to cancel a scheduled meeting with the candidate.
Dolan also failed to withdraw his request to the Vatican to give VIP status to then-Fox News star Bill O’Reilly during his trip to Rome last year, despite growing charges of sexual harassment, allegations that ultimately got O’Reilly fired from the network. His termination awkwardly occurred the very day that O’Reilly shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with Pope Francis.
Dolan’s tolerance of O’Reilly comes from the same source – the institutional church’s single-minded focus on abortion and contraception. A few years ago, O’Reilly did a fawning interview with Dolan in which the prelate spoke to millions of Fox viewers about his objections to the contraceptive mandate in Obamacare, framing it as a matter of “religious liberty.”
Dolan warned that if the church were silenced, and Catholics and other people of biblical faiths were not able to “have a say in the direction of our beloved country” there would be a “huge void” in the marketplace of ideas that would be filled by “a new religion called secularism.”
From my vantage point, secularism based on the fundamental values of justice and civility would look pretty good right now. Some would argue that the Founding Fathers were pretty clear about affording everyone the right to practice – or not practice – his or her religion. But they also expressed their aversion to any state-sponsored religion.
If Cardinal Dolan is looking around the country, what he might see – if he wasn’t wearing his clerical blinders – is a nation torn apart, its standing in the world crumbling and its values in turmoil.
This is a “huge void” far larger than any he criticized – a chasm he and many other Catholic clerics helped create. As a consequence, not only does American democracy face an unprecedented existential challenge, so does American Catholicism.
Celia Viggo Wexler is the author of Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope (Rowman & Littlefield).