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Catholic Bishops Doing a Happy Dance – For Now

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), “looks forward to working with President-elect Trump to protect human life from its most vulnerable beginning, [a] commitment to domestic religious liberty, ensuring people of faith remain free to proclaim the truth about man and woman [anti-transgender dogwhistle], and the unique bond of marriage that they can form …. We are firm in our resolve that our brothers and sisters who are migrants and refugees can be humanely welcomed without sacrificing our security.”

Much of this echoes the Vatican’s statement that “points of dialogue” with Trump will include “internal [domestic] subjects such as religious freedom, Catholics’ commitment and attention to the most vulnerable bands of society.”

Martin R. Castro, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, recently stated: “The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.”

Tuesday’s statement from the USCCB’s semi-annual meeting repeated that their pro-immigration efforts would “honor and respect the laws of this nation,”  which mirrors what Pope Francis said on Nov. 1. “Migrants should be treated according to certain rules, because migration is a right, but one which is highly regulated” and “If a country is only able to integrate 20 [refugees], let’s say, then it should only accept that many.” the pope told reporters.

While maintaining a prohibition of not endorsing candidates by name, it was clear who the bishops were rooting for. Their video, “The Right to Religious Freedom,” released “in the lead-up to the 2016 elections” showed a clip of Hillary Clinton while a voice-over intoned that “the government is stopping us from practicing our faith.”

The bishops were silent when Pope Francis was planning a trip to the US border as part of his visit to Mexico and presidential candidate Trump said “I think that the pope is a very political person. I think Mexico got him to do it because they want to keep the border just the way it is.”  Nor did they make any comment or backup when the pope said that those who build walls are “not Christians.”

But when Wikileaks released Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails on Oct. 11, the bishops’ reactions were hyperbolic, untrue and highly partisan. The emails had nothing whatsoever to do with Hillary Clinton or any political campaign and the bishops’ criticisms were mostly leveled at persons totally unconnected to the Clintons. The “intrusion” into Podesta’s email was “part of a wider inquiry into potential Russian cyberattacks.” They were written long before Podesta or Jennifer Palmieri became involved in the 2016 campaign (Palmieri was Clinton’s 2016 campaign communications director).

The first is dated in April 2011 from John Halpin to Podesta and Palmieri, all Catholic members of the Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive public policy research and advocacy organization. Under the subject “Conservative Catholicism,” Halpin wrote, “Many of the most powerful elements of the conservative movement are all Catholic (many converts) … It’s an amazing bastardization of the faith.” Palmieri replied, “I imagine they think it is the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion. Their rich friends wouldn’t understand if they became evangelicals.”

The second is dated in February 2012 from Sandy Newman, a non-Catholic president of Voices for Progress. She wrote to Podesta. “There needs to be a Catholic Spring, in which Catholics themselves demand the end of a middle ages dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic church.” Newman adds: “I have not thought at all about how one would ‘plant the seeds of the revolution,’ or who would plant them.” Podesta replied: “We created Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to organize for a moment like this. But I think it lacks the leadership to do so now. Likewise Catholics United. Like most Spring movements, I think this one will have to be bottom up.”

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the USCCB, responded that some “sought to interfere in the internal life of the Church for short-term political gain.” We “expect public officials to respect the rights of people to live their faith without interference from the state …. Politicians, their staffs and volunteers should reflect our best aspirations as citizens. Too much of our current political discourse has demeaned women and marginalized people of faith.”

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan: “The emails of [not “by”] John Podesta, who is Mrs. Clinton’s chief of staff, are just extraordinarily patronizing, insulting to Catholics [and] offensive.”

Archbishop Charles Chaput, the eminence grise of the US episcopate and other right-wing Catholics, wrote about “the contemptuously anti-Catholic emails exchanged among members of the Clinton Democratic presidential campaign team …. The Clinton team emails are some of the worst bigotry by a political machine I have seen. A Church has an absolute right to protect itself when under attack [by] civil political forces … The current administration, with which these people share values, has been very hostile to religious organizations. Now there is clear proof that this approach is deliberate and will accelerate if these actors have any continuing, let alone louder, say in government .… We have political actors trying to orchestrate a coup to destroy Catholic values, and they even analogize their takeover to a coup in the Middle East, which amplifies their bigotry and hatred of the Church. [T]he choice facing voters in November: A vulgar, boorish lout and disrespecter of women with a serious impulse control problem [another pretense of bipartisanship]; or a scheming, robotic liar with a lifelong appetite for power and an entourage riddled with anti-Catholic bigots.”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, Chaput’s hand-picked successor in Denver, while admitting an “aversion” to both candidates, wrote that the Democratic Party is “aggressively pro-abortion” while the GOP “just this year strengthened its support for life.” He repeated the religious right canard that Obamacare “requires provisions” for “abortifacients.” “[T]oo many Catholics … have condoned evil and the throw-away culture that Pope Francis frequently reminds us to reject,” Aquila wrote and he warns that “the government will become ‘god’ and impose its beliefs on the citizens.” Therefore, “Catholic voters must make themselves aware [that] the right to life is the most important and fundamental right.”

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin wrote that Tim Kaine “has been widely identified as a Roman Catholic” but “he publicly supports ‘freedom of choice’ for abortion, same-sex marriage, gay adoptions, and the ordination of women as priests …. All of these positions are clearly contrary to well-established Catholic teachings; all of them have been opposed by Pope Francis as well,” Tobin wrote. “[H]is faith isn’t central to his public, political life,” Tobin concluded.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann: “[T]he Catholic running for the second highest office in our land is an orthodox member of his party, fully embracing his party’s platform, but a cafeteria Catholic, picking and choosing the teachings of the Catholic Church that are politically convenient.”

In an Oct. 20 speech, the astute Chaput said, “Even many people who despise what Mr. Trump stands for seem to enjoy his gift for twisting the knife in America’s leadership elite and their spirit of entitlement, embodied in the person of Hillary Clinton.” The archbishop continued that the “price of entry” into the “leadership elite” for “people like Nancy Pelosi, Anthony Kennedy, Joe Biden and Tim Kaine ” has been the transfer “of real loyalties and convictions from the old Church of our baptism to the new ‘Church’ of our ambitions and appetites.”

Chaput also repeated the sentiment often attributed to Pope Benedict XVI:  “We should never be afraid of a smaller, lighter Church if her members are also more faithful, more zealous, more missionary and more committed to holiness. Making sure that happens is the job of those of us who are bishops. Losing people who are members of the Church in name only is an imaginary loss.  It may in fact be more honest for those who leave and healthier for those who stay.  We should be focused on commitment, not numbers or institutional throw-weight.”

On Tuesday, the bishops elected Cardinal Daniel DiNardo as their president. DiNardo previously was the chair of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities. DiNardo “has found the US government to be ‘coercive’ in restricting religious liberty,” citing Obamacares’ provision that employers provide coverage for birth control.

Archbishop Jose Gomez was elected vice-president. He was Chaput’s auxiliary bishop and protégé from 2001 to 2011 and another active anti-abortion advocate. He sponsored a “massive pro-life conference” in Los Angeles with “busses” bringing “thousands” to the event. Gomez also sponsored the conference in Rome supporting the canonization of Junipero Serra during which Pope Francis called the friar “one of America’s founding fathers.”

Trump won the Catholic vote

Trump won the highest percentage of Catholic voters for a Republican candidate (52%) since 2004 with both whites (60%) and Latinos (26%) casting more ballots for Trump than for Romney in 2012. Exit polls showed 23% of voters identified as Catholic.

Every poll conducted during the campaign (here, here, here and here) showed Catholics choosing Trump at percentages higher than the general electorate.

Unfortunately, the exit polling didn’t ask if abortion, same-sex marriage or the current anti-transgender issues effected the voting. Voters were asked to choose only among the economy, terrorism, foreign policy and immigration as factors.

Pew did a survey Aug 16 – Sept. 12 about “contraception, same-sex marriage and transgender rights” which “have highlighted the growing tension between protecting religious liberty and guaranteeing nondiscrimination,” but didn’t ask how decisive these issues would be on how the respondents would vote.

So how much of a role religion played in the 2016 election will remain speculation. All we know for sure is that the Religious Right opposed Trump in the primaries although most of their leaders, like many other Republicans, came around to supporting Trump after the conventions.

Statistics not favorable for the USCCB

A poll on religion conducted in August showed that while nearly one-third (31.2 %) of Americans report being raised in a Catholic household, only about one in five (20.9%) Americans currently identify as Catholic. The loss of 10.3% was highest among all religious denominations. “Notably, those who were raised Catholic are more likely than those raised in any other religion to cite negative religious treatment of gay and lesbian people (39% and 29%, respectively) and the clergy sexual-abuse scandal (32% and 19% respectively) as primary reasons they left the Church.”

A survey done in mid-June showed that white Catholics are now only 13% of registered voters – Latinos are 5%, others 2%.

Although we don’t know if Chaput calling the loss of what he considers to be “members-in-name-only” an “imaginary loss” is sour grapes, the US episcopate is likely concerned about the diminishing of their “institutional throw-weight.” The weight and funding needed in their anti-women, anti-LGBTQ legislative campaigns – not to mention their on-going state legislative battles against amendments providing justice to victims of rape and sexual assaults – is at stake.

The bishops cannot depend on Latinos to continue filling their increasingly empty pews. While Latinos made up about one-quarter of US Catholics in the 1980s, in 2013 (the latest figures available) Latinos constituted 40% of the Catholic population. The bad news for the episcopate is that, in 2013, 55% of Latino adults identified as Catholic but that figure was “down from 67% as recently as 2010” and “nearly one-in-four Latino adults (24%) are now former Catholics.”

Latinos will notice the bishops’ hedging their pro-immigration statements with phrases such as “without sacrificing our security” and “honor and respect the laws of this nation.” All the while, it is the civil Democratic administrations of cities such as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and others who defy federal law to offer sanctuary – which has its roots in religious institutions providing refuge – to their undocumented populations, not the bishops.

What One Christian Sounds Like

Part of the opinion expressed by Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, after the election:

Political power – or the illusion of it – has not always been good for us. Such influence has led us to conform our minds to that of the world about what matters, and who matters, in the long-run of history. We should, as missionary Jim Elliot put it a generation ago, own our “strangerhood.”

What can we do now? We can, first of all, maintain a prophetic clarity that is willing to call to repentance everything that is unjust and anti-Christ, whether that is the abortion culture, the divorce culture, or the racism/nativism culture. We can be the people who tell the truth, whether it helps or hurts our so-called “allies” or our so-called “enemies.”

Moreover, no matter what the racial and ethnic divisions in America, we can be churches that demonstrate and embody the reconciliation of the kingdom of God. After all, we are not just part of a coalition but part of a Body – a Body that is white and black and Latino and Asian, male and female, rich and poor. We are part of a Body joined to a Head who is an Aramaic-speaking Middle-easterner. What affects black and Hispanic and Asian Christians ought to affect white Christians. And the sorts of poverty and social unraveling among the white working class ought to affect black and Hispanic and Asian Christians. We belong to each other because we belong to Christ.

Priests are chosen as bishops, bishops elevated to cardinal, not for their devotion to Jesus but for their fealty and loyalty to the institutional Church and its leader. As head of that Church, Pope Francis created first a Secretariat for (his) Economy and then a Secretariat for (PR) Communications. There is actually a Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in the Vatican which has been completely overlooked in this pontificate.

(Betty Clermont is author of The NeoCatholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America.)

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