With our scandal-plagued president meeting Pope Francis in the Vatican on Wednesday, President Trump’s detractors are doubling down on one of their favorite tactics: trying to undermine Trump’s credibility with Catholic voters, who make up almost a quarter of the electorate, by highlighting the glaring differences between him and the Pope.
“Sure, it didn’t keep Catholics from voting for Trump in unusually high numbers last November,” the thinking goes, “but maybe it can help finish him off now that he’s on the ropes.” This effort likely to fail. Again.
First, without putting too fine a point on it, Trump’s most die-hard supporters tend not to be Catholic, and those who are tend not to be the sort of folks who take their political cues from Pope Francis. Just ask Sean Hannity. Or his viewers.
Second, millions of American Catholics who reluctantly voted for Trump already know he’s childish, vain, vulgar and unstable. They don’t need to be persuaded on this point. They voted for him anyway because, for all his painfully obvious inadequacies, Hillary Clinton utterly failed to convince in the role of less bad alternative.
Third, attempts to stymie Trump politically by delegitimizing him religiously reek of opportunism. For those who have spent the last few decades warning about the theocratic tendencies of the religious Right to suddenly insist on a particular set of policies “because the Pope said so” is ironic, even galling, and not particularly persuasive. And that’s before we even get to Democratic Party’s uniform dedication to the abortion license and its purge of pro-life candidates.
To be clear, I see no reason why Pope Francis or any other religious leader shouldn’t speak about the moral implications of various social, political and economic matters. As a Catholic, I think people (especially Catholics) should listen to him, though not everything he says will be authoritative. Religion has an indispensable role to play in shaping our public life and thus our politics and our laws. When public life is bereft of religious truth, it becomes stunted and inhumane.
Jesus instructed the Pharisees: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This is often taken as a warning to rulers who would usurp the things of God and to Christians who would worship political idols. But it’s also an important reminder that politics deserves its proper autonomy; some things do in fact belong to Caesar.
So, while I applaud the insistence that our faith should inform our politics, none of us should expect the teachings of the faith to do the work of politics for us. The Beatitudes aren’t policy prescriptions.
Most American Catholics, on both the Right and the Left, take seriously the moral responsibility of citizenship. But neither the integrity of Christian morality nor the proper autonomy of politics is well served by skipping over legitimately political, prudential questions in order to reach for the supposed political silver bullet of being able to declare your opponent anathema. This is something conservatives know a thing or two about.
So here’s some practical advice from a Catholic conservative who shares many of the Left’s concerns about Trump:
The proper object of politics is justice, and it’s our natural capacity for reason that makes that possible. Let’s work to recover a sense of justice rooted in truth and knowable through reason. Justice is meaningless if truth is relative, so enough of the “your truth and my truth” nonsense which leaves no middle ground — religious, political, cultural or otherwise — on which to meet those with whom we disagree. Finally, global solidarity is great, but if it comes at the expense of local solidarity — e.g., if it ignores subsidiarity, undermines the nation, turns a blind eye to the real costs of creative destruction, erodes the family, curtails religious freedom or exterminates the next generation in the womb — then it’s not authentic solidarity and doesn’t serve the common good.
Take up this work — work about which religion has something to say, but work that is unmistakably political — and we might just discover the beginnings of a way to an authentic, humane alternative to Trumpism: one that even Pope Francis might applaud.
Stephen P. White (@StephenWhite11) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of “Red, White, Blue, and Catholic” (Liguori Publications, 2016).