It’s understandable that with people grasping for a light in the darkness in the wake of Trump’s Muslim travel ban, they would look to the leadership of the Catholic Church. After all, the institutional Catholic Church has consistently been a voice for immigrant rights and Pope Francis has made compassion for migrants and refugees a special concern of his papacy.
So we get articles like this one in the Washington Post, asserting that Trump is “facing fierce opposition” from Catholic leaders who are “issuing strongly worded statements condemning” the ban. But a look at the actual statements, and who is making them, shows that the idea of unified Catholic opposition to Trump is largely wishful thinking. With a few exceptions, the opposition isn’t particularly “fierce.” Nor, given the type of cleavages the church has helped foster among its own constituents, is it likely to be particularly effective in terms of rallying Catholic opposition to the ban.
The Post article conflates comments from progressive Catholics like Georgetown University’s John Carr and Jesuit Thomas Reese with those of the Catholic bishops to suggest some kind of Catholic groundswell against Trump. But Carr and Reese, while well-respected among progressives, lack clout within the broader church. In fact, Carr was forced from his long-time role as head of social justice programs for the U.S. bishops’ conference by ascendant culture warriors and Reese was famously booted as editor of America by Pope Benedict when he was Cardinal Ratzinger. All voices within the church are not equal.
There have been some sharp condemnations of the ban from Catholic bishops, most notably Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, who slammed the ban as “a dark moment in U.S. history,” language that properly situates Trump’s action among other epic U.S. moral failures like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the turning away of Jewish refugees during the same period.
Cupich also didn’t shy away from the issue of religious discrimination, saying that while Trump is claiming it isn’t a “Muslim ban,” it does focus on “Muslim-majority countries” and “make[s] an exception for Christians and non-Muslim minorities, but not for Muslims refugees fleeing for their lives.”
In contrast, the official statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops doesn’t ever get up the energy to directly condemn the ban, but talks about the bond between Catholics and Muslims being “founded on the unbreakable strength of charity and justice” and lauds refugees “fleeing from ISIS and other extremists” for staying “firm in their faith,” although it’s not clear how that applies to Syrian refugees fleeing civil war. And in what could be read as a backdoor nod to a need for the ban, they assert:
We must screen vigilantly for infiltrators who would do us harm, but we must always be equally vigilant in our welcome of friends.
Of course, how to tell friend from foe, and exactly how “vigilant” to be is the crux of much of the controversy over Trump’s executive action. And while the bishops urge Catholics to “welcome the stranger” and “speak in defense of human dignity,” the statement lacks the urgency of previous exhortations to protect “religious liberty.”
When the Catholic bishops decided to fight tooth-and-nail the rule requiring employers to provide no-cost contraception in their health plans, it was the language of war. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote:
We have made it clear in no uncertain terms to the government that we are not at peace with its invasive attempt to curtail the religious freedom we cherish as Catholics and Americans. We did not ask for this fight, but we will not run from it. … we have become certain of two things: religious freedom is under attack, and we will not cease our struggle to protect it.
When Dolan was asked for a response to Trump’s executive order, just a little more than a week after he sanctified his inauguration with his presence, Dolan gave the ultimate politician’s response that he hadn’t had time to review it yet, but at “first blush, is causes us some apprehension.” This isn’t surprising coming from Dolan, who has long sought to conflate the persecution of Christians in Muslim-majority countries like Syria and Pakistan with Catholic hospitals being required to cover birth control pills under the broad rubric of religious liberty.
And for every Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark who called Trump’s order the “opposite of what it means to be an American,” there was an Archbishop Charles Chaput, who on the day Trump’s order was made public chastised his opponents for having “marched, rioted, verbally abused and in some cases viciously assaulted their opponents on a scale previously unseen.”
Chaput suggested that the University of Notre Dame should invite Trump “to offer its commencement address, to explain his personal evolution on the abortion issue, and to share, listen and learn with a cross-section of students and faculty in a respectful dialogue on the meaning of human dignity.” Which, is, funny.
Ironically, the bishops said in their statement that their “desire is not to enter the political arena.” Any hope that the leaders of the Catholic Church could offer effective moral leadership on immigration was long ago squandered by the likes of Dolan and Chaput when they entered the political arena. It was the bishops’ decades long fight to politicize abortion in the church that began the migration of many white Catholic to the Republican Party and the more recent focus on “religious liberty” that helped cement it.
And it was Dolan, and before him New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor and Pope John Paul II, who taught conservative Catholics that it was okay to ignore liberal voices in the church while paying attention to the prophetic voices of the Republican Party. Not surprisingly, roughly six in ten white Catholics (60%) said the number of immigrants from Muslim countries to the United States was too high in a June 2016 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute/Brookings Institute. This was precisely the margin by which Trump won white Catholic voters. And about half of white Catholics supported banning Syrian refugees or placing a temporary ban in Muslims.
As a result of a politically polarized church, the only people likely to hear the few truly prophetic voices in the church’s leadership are progressive Catholics and others hoping for some kind of moral assaugement in the face of Trump. It’s too late for the church to offer much more.