Donald Trump has been elected the forty-fifth president of the United States, defeating, to the surprise of many, not least her supporters, Hillary Clinton. Clinton had been strongly favored to win this election, but by the evening of November 8, it was obvious to all observers that Clinton’s candidacy was in serious trouble. Mortal peril, it turns out.
Already there has been the usual routine following a presidential campaign, especially one with a surprise ending. Trump’s supporters are overjoyed (they thought they’d lose); Clinton’s are devastated (they were entitled to victory). And already the narrative is shaping up that the 2016 election was really about class and economic anxiety. This explains why voters rejected in key “Rust Belt” states the shopworn combination of dreary liberal policies and identity politics that Clinton seemed to prefer to meat-and-potatoes proposals for improving their lives. Of course, there was likely more to it than that, and Clinton’s supporters aren’t completely wrong when they decry bigotry among Trump’s supporters.
The bottom line is that Trump has won and Catholics now have to figure out what to do in the Trump moment.
This will not be easy. Trump has been particularly vexing for serious Catholics since he declared his candidacy. His policy proposals, his personal life, and his demeanor all troubled, though in different dimensions and to different extents, Catholics considering pulling the lever for Trump. We note, to take one brief example, that many of Trump’s signature policies are reconcilable with Catholic doctrine only with great difficulty. Pius XII condemned, in Exsul Familia, the absolutist attitude toward immigration that Trump adopted, identifying instead a natural right of migration that must be respected by nations. And Trump, occasionally calling for measures best described as economic populism, nevertheless hewed fairly closely to conservative American orthodoxy on some economic points, which, despite the protestations of some Catholics in the media, is reconcilable with Catholic doctrine not at all. This is all in addition to the darker side of Trump’s candidacy. It cannot be denied that Trump brought out bigoted elements of society. Everyone knows that he demonized immigrants from Mexico and Latin America and promised to build a wall to keep them out. This led to some nasty elements—racists, for lack of a more decorous word—latching on to Trump. And Trump, ever the showman and entertainer, flirted with those elements. Many Catholics, acknowledging the Church’s teachings about xenophobia, disordered nationalism, and racism, objected vehemently to Trump on these grounds.
But, at the same time, there was strong support for Trump among Catholics. In fact, Trump snapped a long trend of a majority of Catholics voting for the Democratic nominee. (Before Trump, according to the Pew study we just linked, the last Republican in recent years to win a majority of Catholic votes was George W. Bush in 2004.) Part of this was, of course, the deep Catholic antipathy for Hillary Clinton, who marked herself out long ago as a staunch opponent of the Church’s positions on abortion and contraception. Clinton made her radical pro-choice positions such a central part of her platform that Trump started out with an advantage among many Catholics. And she went far beyond previous Democratic candidates by promising to repeal the lifesaving Hyde Amendment, for example. On the other hand, given Trump’s promises to rescind some of Obama’s executive orders, including the anti-clerical contraception mandate, and to appoint pro-life judges to the federal judiciary, it is understandable that his initial advantage carried through to the polls. But we suspect that Trump’s message of economic populism also resonated with many Catholics, many of whom no doubt come from Rust Belt states with long traditions of organized labor, all of which have suffered greatly under the neoliberal policies of the last thirty years.
Whatever the reason, in the end, Catholics did pull the lever for Trump.
All of this meant that Trump was, perhaps rightly, an extraordinarily divisive figure in Catholic circles. Consider the First Things crowd as one example of many. Rusty Reno and Mark Bauerlein, the bosses of the publication, came out, eventually, for Trump. George Weigel and Robert George, two longtime contributors, on the other hand, were strongly opposed to Trump during the campaign. Even the dismissal of Mark Shea and Simcha Fisher from the National Catholic Register seemed to be a function of some of the division that the Trump candidacy caused among Catholics. And this is without discussing the enthusiastic Trumpists in the clergy, including, for example, Fr. Frank Pavone, who managed to create a serious controversy with a pro-Trump infomercial he made over the corpse of an aborted child. Of course, perhaps all of this is a function of the general politicization of Catholic life. Conservatives read the Register; liberals read the Reporter. Conservatives support Republicans enthusiastically; liberals support Democrats enthusiastically. So on, so forth. At any rate, it does not appear from the early reactions that Trump will be any less divisive now among Catholics than he was during the campaign, especially as Catholics begin to figure out how to navigate the Trump moment.
Consider, if you’ll bear with us, some of the early comments from Catholic media. At the National Catholic Register, Edward Pentin has a long interview with Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, a prelate no doubt well known to readers of Semiduplex, about the election. Cardinal Burke articulates a fairly sunny view of Trump’s election. A selection:
Your Eminence, what is your reaction to the news of Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president?
I think that it is a clear sign of the will of the people. I understand that the voter turnout was stronger than usual, and I think that the American people have awoken to the really serious situation in which the country finds itself with regard to the common good, the fundamental goods that constitute the common good, whether it be the protection of human life itself, the integrity of marriage and the family or religious liberty. That a candidate like Donald Trump — who was completely out of the normal system of politics — could be elected is an indication that our political leaders need to listen more carefully to the people and, in my judgment, return to those fundamental principles that safeguard the common good that were so clearly enunciated at the foundation of the country in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution.
(Italics in original; emphasis supplied.) The Cardinal goes on to say,
Some are calling this a golden opportunity for the Church, particularly because of Trump’s position on life issues and religious freedom.
Exactly; what he has said about pro-life issues, family issues and also issues regarding religious freedom shows a great disposition to hear the Church on these matters and to understand that these are fundamentally questions of the moral law, not questions of religious confession. They are questions of the moral law, which religion in the country, as the Founding Fathers understood from the start, is meant to support and to sustain. The government needs the help of religious leadership in order to hold to an ethical norm.
(Italics and hyperlink in original; emphasis supplied.) The whole interview, however, is well worth reading. Cardinal Burke is not one of these clerical Trumpists who trade their birettas for their Make America Great Again caps; he acknowledges that it will be the duty of Catholics to speak up against any of Trump’s policies that are incompatible with the true faith. But, on the whole, it is apparent that Cardinal Burke is supportive of Trump as he conceives of him.
It is unfortunate, however, that Cardinal Burke embraces so wholeheartedly the idea that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution enunciate principles that safeguard the common good. (Don’t worry, dear reader, we are not wasting your time; this will all be relevant shortly.) They simply do not, insofar as the Declaration and Constitution deny the truth about God and man’s duty to profess the true religion, as reason and revelation make it intelligible to him. In point of fact, they articulate an erroneous liberalism, as they attempt to create a neutral sphere in which individuals exercise free choice without constraint. This is unacceptable from a Catholic standpoint. In Immortale Dei, Leo XIII clearly articulated the principle that,
[T]he State, constituted as it is, is clearly bound to act up to the manifold and weighty duties linking it to God, by the public profession of religion. Nature and reason, which command every individual devoutly to worship God in holiness, because we belong to Him and must return to Him, since from Him we came, bind also the civil community by a like law. For, men living together in society are under the power of God no less than individuals are, and society, no less than individuals, owes gratitude to God who gave it being and maintains it and whose everbounteous goodness enriches it with countless blessings. Since, then, no one is allowed to be remiss in the service due to God, and since the chief duty of all men is to cling to religion in both its teaching and practice-not such religion as they may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins, and which certain and most clear marks show to be the only one true religion — it is a public crime to act as though there were no God. So, too, is it a sin for the State not to have care for religion as a something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will. All who rule, therefore, would hold in honor the holy name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favor religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws, and neither to organize nor enact any measure that may compromise its safety. This is the bounden duty of rulers to the people over whom they rule. For one and all are we destined by our birth and adoption to enjoy, when this frail and fleeting life is ended, a supreme and final good in heaven, and to the attainment of this every endeavor should be directed. Since, then, upon this depends the full and perfect happiness of mankind, the securing of this end should be of all imaginable interests the most urgent. Hence, civil society, established for the common welfare, should not only safeguard the wellbeing of the community, but have also at heart the interests of its individual members, in such mode as not in any way to hinder, but in every manner to render as easy as may be, the possession of that highest and unchangeable good for which all should seek. Wherefore, for this purpose, care must especially be taken to preserve unharmed and unimpeded the religion whereof the practice is the link connecting man with God.
(Emphasis supplied.) One may find similar principles articulated in Diuturnum illud and Libertas praestantissimum. One sees, therefore, that the Declaration and the Constitution are in some meaningful way opposed to this truth, and, insofar as they are opposed, the extent to which they serve the common good is debatable. Perhaps one could argue that they further the common good defined as the highest natural good, and that that is somehow sufficient, though such an argument would be contrary to the teaching of Immortale Dei. (The common end of the polity is peace, we note.) It would also be nonsensical, since the state would conceivably pursue the common good through natural reason, but St. Paul and Dei Filius teach us that natural reason is sufficient to learn of the existence of God and the dictates of natural religion. At that juncture, one becomes responsible for learning what God has revealed, St. Pius X teaches in Pascendi. The bottom line, however, is that Cardinal Burke’s comments reveal the extent to which liberalism has penetrated into conservative Catholic circles. There is no other way to characterize the Declaration and Constitution. They are fundamentally liberal documents. And that is a problem for a Catholic.
We’ll come back to this in a few minutes.
There are other takes on Trump from the Catholic world, not so rosy as Cardinal Burke’s. At America, of all places, C.C. Pecknold calls Trump “America’s biggest gamble.” And there are still more critical views of Trump to be found. For example, at the Catholic Herald, Marc Barnes writes,
Despite the general disappointment that the United States has just elected an incompetent, immoral buffoon to embarrass us before the nations, there are several reasons for American Catholics to celebrate a Trump victory. By “celebrate”, I mean “to quietly, timidly, and ironically shrug thy shoulders skyward”, for these are not victories guaranteed or even strongly assured. They are the campaign promises of a business mogul with no reputation for heartfelt sympathy with the moral concerns of Catholics. Nevertheless, we’ve been promised a conservative Supreme Court nominee, a pro-life leader, and the protection of religious freedoms. Insofar as we can genuinely hope to get them, we can allow ourselves a smile.
There. We smiled. Now it is time to frown. The main argument made by conservative Catholics pulling their eyebrows out over who to vote for was that, in comparison with Clinton, “Trump is the lesser of two evils.” Very well: We have elected an evil. If we have an elected an evil then an active Catholic celebration of Donald Trump would be disingenuous in the extreme. At the very least, it would show that all this “lesser of two evils” talk was just that – talk – and that conservative Catholics who so argued are wedded to conservatism; flirting with Catholicism.
(Emphasis supplied.) The thrust of Barnes’s argument is that Trump’s prescriptions for improving the lives of ordinary, working class Americans are, by and large, drawn from the basic Republican playbook. He says,
We cannot mindlessly assent to the capitalism that Trump offers up as our salvation – it is not individual self-interest and market competition, but a genuine pursuit of the common good, that will make America great again. We are still called to agitate (with Leo XIII, Pius XI, Benedict XVI, Francis, and all the rest) for a just wage for labourers, a wage “sufficient to lead a life worthy of man and to fulfil family responsibilities properly” (Pope John XXII, Mater et Magistra). A Catholic economy is not a liberal economy any more than a Catholic morality is a conservative morality. It is time to make the distinction.
(Emphasis supplied.) This is, of course, a hugely important insight. Just as a Catholic, following Immortale Dei and Diuturnum illud, cannot profess without reservation to support the fundamentally agnostic order enshrined in the Declaration and Constitution, neither can a Catholic, following Rerum novarum, Quadragesimo anno, and Caritas in veritate, profess without reservation to support the liberal economic order. Indeed, it must be observed that the religious agnosticism and economic liberalism are bound up inextricably in a broader liberal ideology that is fundamentally opposed to the Church. That is, there is one doctrine that contradicts both Immortale Dei and Rerum novarum, and that doctrine is liberalism. Insofar as Trump proposes mere liberalism to solve the economic problems confronting many Americans, Catholics should be chary at best. Remember Henri Grenier’s lesson that liberalism is corrosive of society itself (3 Thomistic Philosophy no. 1154), as we have all observed over recent years.
This is, of course, where we must, very regretfully, part ways with Cardinal Burke. To the extent that the Cardinal sees Trump as a return to the liberalism enshrined in the Declaration and the Constitution, we cannot see that Trump’s victory is a good thing. Indeed, given his aggressive postures on so many issues, it seems like the worst possible thing. The liberalism of the Obama government, though implacably opposed to the Church, was at least bloodless and technocratic. Liberalism dressed up in populism and intolerance would be a significantly worse outcome than four more years of Obama-style liberalism. Of course, one may distinguish the good liberalism of the Founders from the bad liberalism of Obama; however, finding the principled basis to make such a distinction is harder than it seems. Liberalism is liberalism, and it is always ultimately corrosive to orderly society.
But one silver lining to a Trump presidency is the effect that Trump’s victory has had on liberalism, especially in the context of global trends. Matthew Schmitz, best known as an editor at First Things, has a piece at the Spectator, in which he argues:
In her concession speech, Clinton said her goal had been ‘breaking down all the barriers that hold any American back from achieving their dreams’. This is the dream of liberalism, which seeks freedom from any social or economic constraint. Elites like Clinton feel confident that they can navigate a deregulated society in which class, gender, and race are all fluid. They support deregulated markets as well, confident that free trade and open borders will serve their own interests in the near term and the whole country’s in the longer term.
The rest of America isn’t so sure. The people who put Trump into office want security and solidarity, not creative destruction. They look askance at the Trans-Pacific Partnership and transgender rights. They do not want broken barriers and shattered ceilings, they want four walls of adobe slats and a roof over their heads.
In mild and radical ways, people across the world are turning away from a liberal belief in open borders, open markets, and the ability of formal procedures to ward off debate over fundamental questions. We can see this in the choice of British citizens to vote for Brexit; in the fact that France’s leading presidential candidate is Marine Le Pen. In Austria, the anti-immigrant Freedom Party has entered the run-off for the presidential race. In Hungary, Viktor Orban has moved the country toward Christian nationalism and an alliance with Russia. The Law and Justice party, socially conservative and economically interventionist, has moved Poland away from the liberal consensus of free-market secularity.
(Hyperlinks in original; emphasis supplied.) Schmitz goes on to conclude:
Voters sense the need for a deeper solidarity and a higher order than liberalism can give them. They don’t want to shatter ceilings if it means they have no roof in a storm. Trump offers protection to some Americans but leaves others out in the cold. Who will articulate a politics that is hospitable to all?
(Emphasis supplied.) Knowing Schmitz’s body of work, we suspect that we know who he has in mind—Catholics. Especially those Catholics who have come to realize what we have briefly sketched out above: it is impossible to be a good Catholic and a good liberal.
To implement this solution, obviously, Catholics must present clearly and firmly the Church’s economic teachings, but to whom? In the first place, it is a part of the Catholic mission to remind politicians that the Church, which has a divine mandate to interpret and protect the natural law, has pronounced upon these matters. Maybe some politicians will listen. Barnes points to the speech Bernie Sanders gave at the Vatican during the Democratic primaries as an example of a more thorough engagement with Catholic social teaching. And it is hard to disagree with that point. Sanders’s speech is an example of a politician who has at least made an effort to engage with the Church’s economic doctrine (or deputed a staffer to do it). It is nothing groundbreaking or especially insightful, but it is a fair reading from a place of engagement:
The essential wisdom of Centesimus Annus is this: A market economy is beneficial for productivity and economic freedom. But if we let the quest for profits dominate society; if workers become disposable cogs of the financial system; if vast inequalities of power and wealth lead to marginalization of the poor and the powerless; then the common good is squandered and the market economy fails us. Pope John Paul II puts it this way: profit that is the result of “illicit exploitation, speculation, or the breaking of solidarity among working people . . . has not justification, and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man.” (Para43).
We are now twenty-five years after the fall of Communist rule in Eastern Europe. Yet we have to acknowledge that Pope John Paul’s warnings about the excesses of untrammeled finance were deeply prescient. Twenty-five years after Centesimus Annus, speculation, illicit financial flows, environmental destruction, and the weakening of the rights of workers is far more severe than it was a quarter century ago. Financial excesses, indeed widespread financial criminality on Wall Street, played a direct role in causing the world’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
(Emphasis supplied.) Certainly, politicians who take the time to engage with the social teaching of the popes are bound to find new approaches to the questions presented by the modern age, approaches set forth with authority. Yet, Barnes notes that Sanders was a hopelessly conventional Democratic politician on the questions of abortion and contraception. No doubt, Sanders would seek to sever the Church’s economic teachings from her teachings about morality and the proper course of life.
But any attempt to divorce, say, the Church’s economic teaching from the Church’s teaching about the right ordering of society or the Church’s moral teaching is doomed to failure from the outset. In fact, it is ultimately liberalism. Recall Schmitz’s point that liberalism seeks to break down barriers and make all things fluid. Grenier would say that this is because liberalism atomizes society and makes the individual the measure of all things. Whatever the pathology, the answer is clear: one cannot propose the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics but attempt to claim no room for the Church on the state’s obligations to God or the right ordering of economic life, and one cannot call for a just wage as demanded by the good and holy popes of modernity without also calling for the state to recognize and foster the true faith of Christ, handed down by His Church.
To demand that the Church leave any one arena is to give science or philosophy of one sort or another supremacy over the Church. This is what liberalism demands, because liberalism, being fundamentally agnostic, requires science and philosophy to support its conclusions. Thus, the liberal has to privilege science and philosophy over Catholicism in order to achieve his desired result. This is, however, St. Pius X explains, the favored method of the Modernists:
This becomes still clearer to anybody who studies the conduct of Modernists, which is in perfect harmony with their teachings. In the writings and addresses they seem not unfrequently to advocate now one doctrine now another so that one would be disposed to regard them as vague and doubtful. But there is a reason for this, and it is to be found in their ideas as to the mutual separation of science and faith. Hence in their books you find some things which might well be expressed by a Catholic, but in the next page you find other things which might have been dictated by a rationalist. When they write history they make no mention of the divinity of Christ, but when they are in the pulpit they profess it clearly; again, when they write history they pay no heed to the Fathers and the Councils, but when they catechise the people, they cite them respectfully. In the same way they draw their distinctions between theological and pastoral exegesis and scientific and historical exegesis. So, too, acting on the principle that science in no way depends upon faith, when they treat of philosophy, history, criticism, feeling no horror at treading in the footsteps of Luther, they are wont to display a certain contempt for Catholic doctrines, or the Holy Fathers, for the Ecumenical Councils, for the ecclesiastical magisterium; and should they be rebuked for this, they complain that they are being deprived of their liberty. Lastly, guided by the theory that faith must be subject to science, they continuously and openly criticise the Church because of her sheer obstinacy in refusing to submit and accommodate her dogmas to the opinions of philosophy; while they, on their side, after having blotted out the old theology, endeavour to introduce a new theology which shall follow the vagaries of their philosophers.
(Emphasis supplied.) But it cannot be denied that a true liberal switches back and forth between sound Catholic doctrine and liberal economics and history with ease. And why shouldn’t he? Liberalism tells him that he is the judge of all things, and liberalism the only verdict worth reaching. But Christ’s Church tells Catholics that it doesn’t work that way. One cannot have everything both ways. In other words, a Catholic cannot stop at proposing the Church’s economic teaching to politicians; a Catholic must propose all of the Church’s teachings to a politician, lest he fall into the trap of liberalism and Modernism.
And, of course, a Catholic must propose the Church’s teaching to his or her fellow Catholics. It is plain, as we can see, that liberalism holds a strong grip on the minds of many Catholics, including high prelates. As the Holy Father’s Year of Mercy comes to an end, we must recall that it is a spiritual work of mercy to instruct one’s brothers and sisters in Christ in the true doctrine of Christ’s Church, which is the pure apostolic faith, protected and handed down over the centuries. Correcting them when they profess liberalism, which is incompatible with the Catholic faith, is a great work of mercy. No Catholic should be content to see a fellow Catholic mired in liberalism and Modernism. It is also a prudent political decision, since more Catholics demanding that politicians retreat from the social and spiritual poison of liberalism will surely garner more attention from politicians.
There is, of course, the possibility of progress under a Trump administration. Perhaps Trump will dismantle, even in part, the legal support for abortion in the United States by appointing judges committed to upholding the natural law. Perhaps Trump will rescind the anticlerical decrees of the Obama government. And perhaps Trump will attack the foundations of economic liberalism in the United States. He has said he will do all this. But it is equally possible that Trump will articulate immigration policies that have been roundly rejected by the Church. He has said he will do this. It is possible that he will encourage racist and xenophobic behavior. He has done this. And it is possible that, despite his promises, he will fail to appoint pro-life judges. And it is possible that his solution for the economic failures that swept him into office is little more than more economic liberalism. Certainly, no one would accuse him of being hugely consistent. The bottom line is that, where Trump is serious about governing consistently with the Church’s teachings, Catholics ought to support him, if from a distance. And where he contradicts the Church’s teachings—especially on immigration and racism—Catholics ought to resist him.
But above this, Catholics in the Trump moment ought to strengthen one another’s faith in Christ and one another’s understanding of the teachings of the Church. Catholics ought to also propose to politicians and our countrymen the fullness of Catholic teaching. Not only will this be to their spiritual advantage but it will also be to the nation’s material advantage. Let us be realistic: Donald Trump is a human politician. The best-case scenario is that he will disappoint Catholics one way and other. All politicians do. And, to be even more realistic, we know him well enough by now to know that the best-case scenario is a reach. But, though Trump will probably disappoint, Catholics must recognize that the forces that brought him to power are not going to disappear simply because he is an ineffective or inconsistent leader. People will still be dissatisfied with all the corrosive effects of liberalism. And, if (when?) Trump drops the ball, Catholics ought to be ready to step into the void to tell the politicians and voters who supported Trump—as well as the people who shared some of their concerns, but could not look past Trump’s evident flaws as a candidate—that there is another way to fight liberalism.
One needs only to look to Peter.
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