Catholics are being told not to vote Democratic because the party supports abortion. But we’re also told to oust President Donald Trump because he violates a core Catholic teaching: respect for all life.
Trump, throughout his term, has restored federal capital punishment, put immigrant children in cages and reversed protections for the environment. Oh, and he lies.
So what’s a Catholic to do?
The dilemma throws a light on deep divisions in the U.S. branch of the Catholic Church, which has experienced a virtual schism since the elevation of Pope Francis in 2013. One side, like Francis, emphasizes social justice, a bigger role for women and an openness toward LGBTQ+, divorced and remarried Catholics. The other side stresses personal piety, long-established devotions and an unquestioning obedience to clergy.
Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic reportedly associated with a secretive, authoritarian group outside the Catholic mainstream known as People of Praise, draws support from the conservative side of the divide. They hope Barrett will chip away at abortion rights.
This divide matters for anyone aiming to predict the “Catholic vote” in November. We are the country’s largest religious denomination (more than 51 million adults), we vote (more than 75% in 2016), and the majority of Catholic voters have picked the winning presidential candidate in nine out of the last 10 elections. Last time, most of us went for Trump.
This time, neither candidate can seem to get a firm grip on a Catholic bloc. We don’t align completely with either Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic who carries a rosary in his pocket and comfortably quotes Scripture or Donald Trump, for whom opposition to abortion is a campaign centerpiece. The division in the pews has become too stark.
“We need you more than ever,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told Trump in an April phone call concerning the plight of Catholic schools during the pandemic. With some 600 Catholics on the line, Trump turned the call into a campaign event, touted his stands against abortion and for “school choice,” calling himself the “best (president) in the history of the Catholic Church.”
The social justice side of the divide was outraged. Why didn’t the bishops bring up white nationalism or immigration? As 1,500 Catholic leaders, priests and theologians wrote in an open letter to Dolan, “There is nothing ‘pro-life’ about Trump’s agenda.”
The Catholic far-right fringe, however, overlaps with the hardcore MAGA crowd. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal ambassador to the United States, used the language of the QAnon conspiracy theory in a June letter to the president, committing himself and other “children of light” to the “Biblical” contest with the “children of darkness… offspring of the Serpent.”
Viganò compared the alleged “deep state” to the alleged existence of a heretical “deep church.” Trump gave Viganò’s followers a nudge toward the mainstream by tweeting his letter and appreciation.
Even COVID-19 causes disagreement. While many U.S. prelates and pastors are opting to follow public health guidelines by televising or live-streaming masses, others decry restrictions on gatherings as violations of religious freedom. Milwaukee’s Archbishop Jerome Listecki, for example, told his flock that physically missing mass is a sin, and that “fear of getting sick, in and of itself, does not excuse someone from the obligation.”
Despite the severe divide in the church, it is ultimately up to individual Catholics to decide how to vote. But no matter how we mark our ballots, the November outcome won’t be a unified, predictable “Catholic vote.”
As key Catholic thinkers have concluded over the centuries, “one’s own conscience must be obeyed before all else.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mary Jo McConahay is an Alicia Patterson Fellow. She is the author of “The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds, and Riches of Latin America during World War II.” This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.