Following the bitter presidential election, many Catholic pastors and religious writers are calling for reconciliation. I think this call is premature. Yes, we ought to love one another no matter what the circumstances. But willing the good to everyone does not mean we ought to contrive a cheap reconciliation that ignores the danger presented by Donald Trump not only to our own society but also to the wider world. Christian reconciliation involves a renewal of broken relationships based upon shared acknowledgement of truth and mutual respect for the claims of justice. If we want peace, Pope Paul VI observed more succinctly, we must work for justice.
We must face the fact that if Catholics had refrained from voting for Trump, he would not be the president-elect today. Millions of Catholics helped to elect someone who has displayed contempt for much of what lies at the heart of Christian morality—compassion, forgiveness, humility, fidelity, and patience. His campaign proposals run directly contrary to core values affirmed by Catholic social teachings—solidarity, the preferential option for the poor, the common good, stewardship of the planet, and the intrinsic dignity of every person, regardless of race, religion, or gender. Most striking is his constant denigration of and contempt for society’s so-called “losers”—precisely those to whom Jesus paid the most attention.
The church will have trouble acting as a source of reconciliation unless its members can engage in serious conversation about truth, justice, and the common good. Right now the laity is sharply divided. Catholics are 23 percent of the electorate, and 52 percent of Catholic voters cast their vote for Trump, whom many suspect is a racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic bully. Sixty percent of white Catholics voted for him, as did 56 percent of Catholics who go to church regularly. Trump was supported not just by “low-information” Catholics, but also by “high-information” Catholics; by college-educated white male Catholics along with working-class Catholics. Latino Catholics were the one bright spot.
Many of Trump’s Catholic supporters presumably found his callousness and cruelty to be “personally distasteful,” but not objectionable enough to make them repudiate him. Yet if we vote for the candidate we have to take responsibility for supporting the whole package, not just the particular traits or policies we happen to like. Catholic social ethics recognizes the importance of jobs at a living wage, affordable health care, and national security, but insists that we ought not to seek these goods by unjust means or in any way by dehumanizing others. Christian identity makes more fundamental claims on us than does American identity. Many Catholics either don’t know about or don’t want to apply this principle to their electoral decision-making.
Some Catholics supported Trump in the hope that he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would eventually overturn Roe v. Wade. Many critics doubt the sincerity of Trump’s prolife commitment because for most of his life he advanced a pro-choice agenda. In any case, Catholic moral tradition gives primacy to the right to life, but it does not hold that ending legalized abortion outweighs all other goods at stake in an election taken together. An ethic that is not just selectively prolife has to address the full array of life issues, especially those that threaten the most vulnerable people in our society and elsewhere. Laudato si’ acknowledges anthropogenic climate change as a massive threat to the right to life, not a hoax. Reducing the right-to-life to one issue, then, and voting for a reprehensible candidate on the basis of that issue alone, is profoundly un-Catholic.
FOR THEIR PART, American bishops showed a stunning lack of leadership at a time when it was needed most. Some bishops publically expressed concern with Trump’s description of Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers. To their credit, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Bishop Kevin Farrell, and some other bishops expressed public concern over Trump’s immigrant-bashing rhetoric, but they did not offer a direct and sustained criticism of the substance and tone of his campaign as a whole. Staunch conservatives George Weigel and Robert P. George were willing to decry Trump as “manifestly unfit to be president of the United States.” Yet no bishop had the courage of Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore to denounce Trump in no uncertain terms as a “walking affront to the Gospels.” Most obtuse was Archbishop Charles Chaput’s assessment of both major-party candidates as “equally problematic.” Truly problematic are prelates who raise their voices against same-sex marriage, but not against overt racism and misogyny. Or bishops who defend the religious liberty of Catholic institutions regarding contraception, but not the freedom of persecuted Muslim refugees who wish to immigrate to our shores.
In his post-election statement, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, outgoing president of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that he “looks forward to working President-elect Trump” on issues of life, immigration and refugees, religious persecution, and marriage. Kurtz said nothing about poverty or climate change—concerns Pope Francis has made central to his papacy.
The most glaring weakness of American Catholicism is neither the near silence of our bishops nor the divisions within the laity. The more widespread problem is the anemic, impersonal, and “low-impact” character of many of our parishes. Churchgoers often treat their parishes as places where they “go to Mass” once a week to fulfill a religious obligation sandwiched between breakfast and the NFL. The merging of multiple parishes into one aggravates this problem. Vatican II, in contrast, envisioned parishes as communities that help us develop mature, properly formed Christian consciences that can guide us in making political choices and in every other domain of our lives. If we can define a “community” as a people who miss you when you don’t show up, then Catholics all too often don’t experience their parishes as communities. My suspicion is that the majority of churchgoing Catholics experience their parishes as institutions for “distributing” the sacraments. If this is in fact the case, it may account for why so many Catholics voted for Trump. Catholics too often fail to connect how they think politically with what they profess to believe religiously.
Premature calls for political reconciliation miss the point. At times like this, we need to remember that Jesus himself was divisive: “I came to set men against their fathers, daughters against their mothers, daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law” (Mt 10:35; Lk 12:53). Jesus was clear that those who follow him should expect strife. When they stand in tension, fidelity is prior to reconciliation—and even its necessary condition. Forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing are central to the Gospel, but they are corrupted when not coordinated with fidelity, justice, and truth. All of us must be willing to support reasonable compromises that advance useful public policies, but only within the bounds of what is consistent with universal human dignity. We must try to understand everyone, but not turn a blind eye to bigotry. We must will the good to offenders, but not reconcile with unrepentant racists. Instead, we must struggle against injustice and those who promote or countenance it. As John Paul II insisted, wrongdoing “must be acknowledged and as far as possible corrected … [because an] essential requirement for forgiveness and reconciliation is justice.” We are light years away from justice.
Non-violently resisting the actions of a morally dangerous president does not warrant treating his supporters unjustly. It is indefensible to bully those who voted for a bully. We must instead listen with compassion to his supporters to better understand their concerns and aspirations. St. Paul hit the right balance when he urged the Ephesians to “speak the truth in love” (4:15). None of us knows all truth and none of us loves with perfect purity of heart. We must all repent, exercise humility, and honestly admit our own blind spots. At the same time, we can neither ignore the grave threat of the “Trump movement” and his “alt-right” allies nor downplay the complicity of those who support them. Doing so is denial and moral evasion. This is the time for soul-searching repentance and prophetic honesty. Loyalty to Christ comes before loyalty to any other cause, including that of the “rulers of this age” (1 Cor 2:8).
Reconciliation is the end—not the beginning—of a process that leads all parties into greater truth, justice, and solidarity. Karol Wojtyla did not reconcile with the Communists, Bonhoeffer did not reconcile with the Nazis, Romero did not reconcile with the Salvadoran oligarchy, and King did not reconcile with the KKK. Neither did they enter into dialogue with those who were brutalizing the marginalized. They spoke the truth to power, witnessed to God’s solidarity with the poor, defended human rights, insisted on justice, and called their opponents to conversion. We should expect to be called to do so if the incoming administration attempts to realize Trump’s worst instincts. Twentieth-century Christian prophets were able to do what they did because they participated in networks of solidarity—the Polish trade union movement, the German Confessing Church, Salvadoran base Christian communities, and Southern Baptist churches. We too need to cultivate such intentional communities of conscience.
We must engage in honest dialogue with Trump supporters who explicitly denounce the cruel and open harassment of minorities that has followed his election. Every decent person must stand up against this horror. Patient and honest communication are important, but we have a prior responsibility to side with the marginalized at every step of the way. The very essence of mercy, Pope Francis explains, is “opening one’s heart to wretchedness.” We must accompany and advocate for the “wretched,” including immigrants, Muslims, and women who fear being treated “wretchedly” because of this election. Now is the time for justice, not reconciliation.