Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell and a woman religious walk with others toward the National Museum of African American History and Culture during a peaceful protest June 8, 2020. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Author E. J. Dionne Jr. also discussed this topic and others with Commonweal Editor Dominic Preziosi on the Commonweal Podcast. Listen here:


Catholicism is underperforming in American public life. Its social doctrine is admired well outside the confines of the Church. Yet it remains poorly known and insufficiently appreciated by the faithful.

Those inspired by Catholic thinking have always been alive to the importance of balance—between personal responsibility and a concern for community, between individual rights and the common good. This sense of equilibrium could be an antidote to much that is wrong in our public life. But in so many public proclamations by Church leaders, we hear far more about cultural warfare than balance, more about gloom than hope for modernity, more about dangers than possibilities.

The Church’s teachings about politics represent a radical brand of moderation that is missing in our discourse—radical, because they offer a sharp critique of the status quo and its assumptions; moderate, because they understand the imperative of weighing competing goods and seeing human beings as fallen but also capable of transcendence and redemption.

The old Catholic concept of the “social mortgage” speaks powerfully to our economic moment and to the reality of growing inequality. It underscores the obligations of those who have achieved financial comfort toward the society that enabled their success, and especially toward those who have the least.

The idea that there are “essential workers” has been popularized during the pandemic, and one can say a prayer of thanks for that. The phrase calls attention to the contradiction between our claim to value those who undertake this labor and our failure to stand up for the adequate pay and decent working conditions they deserve. Again, this reflects Catholic teaching, going back to Rerum novarum, that has always insisted on the dignity of work and the right of workers to organize collectively and to lead ennobling personal and family lives.

And, yes, the family matters, as Catholicism has always taught. But here we come again to the ways in which the Church’s leadership so often shortchanges itself, its membership, and the world. That the phrase “family values” is now so closely associated with hostility to LGBTQ people is a shame and a sin. What a dedication to family should be about is the joy we take in the responsibilities of relationships that nurture the next generation.

Family values, rightly understood, should challenge prejudices, not reinforce them. An emphasis on family tells us that the work we do in the marketplace is not the only kind of work that matters, nor is it the most important. Family overturns prejudices related to age—all members of the family, from toddlers to great-grandparents, are appreciated for who they are, who they have been, who they can be.

And we are called to love members of our families even when their views, their ways of living, and their forms of self-expression might annoy or trouble us. In that love, we can also learn how to empathize with those outside our families who are unlike us and might disagree with us.


The Church’s teachings about politics represent a radical brand of moderation that is missing in our discourse

If I am disappointed that American Catholicism is not bringing to our politics what Pope Francis has called “the joy of the Gospel,” it is an impatience born of gratitude, not bitterness. Perhaps that’s why I have used the restrained word “underperforming” to describe what others might fairly see as the scandalous failure of its leadership to speak fearlessly and consistently against the social and moral failures of the Trump presidency.

So much of what I believe has been shaped by the Catholicism I learned from my parents, from the Sisters of St. Joseph, and from the Benedictine monks who taught me in high school. It’s true that I remain enraged by the scandals and can easily identify with those who have left the Church in disgust; they include many people I am close to.

Yet I continue to admire the work on behalf of charity and justice undertaken by so many of the institutions the Church has built. As I have already suggested, I see Catholicism—particularly in its post–World War II form—as offering intellectual resources the democratic world can use at a moment when democracy finds itself in crisis.

This only deepens my sadness over the narrowing of the American Church’s public witness and its failure to take advantage of the enormous opening Pope Francis’s papacy offers. Now should be a time for a renewed embrace of a social Catholicism that gave rise to Christian Democracy, a vibrant Catholic role in the labor movement, and a healthy, dialectical relationship with modernity.

After 1945, the Church took decisive steps, ratified by the Second Vatican Council, to accept modernity’s moral gifts on matters of democracy, religious freedom, and human rights. At the same time, it maintained a critical attitude toward modernity’s acids—the contemporary world’s slide toward a radical rather than a tempered individualism, and its skepticism of tradition in all its forms. Tradition, as Catholics know as well as anyone, can be stifling, but it can also be liberating and instructive.

These Catholic gifts are largely unknown among the young who have come to associate Catholicism with the issues the loudest Catholic voices speak of incessantly—opposition to abortion and gay marriage—and not much else. This is an enormous problem, both for our politics and for the future of the Church, and it will be aggravated by the battle over the Supreme Court seat vacated by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

And this frustration can congeal into anger in response to the insistence by so many right-wing Catholics, including some bishops and priests, that it is a moral obligation to vote for a man who can fairly be seen as the most corrupt, morally flawed, selfish, and bigoted president in our nation’s history. These are symptoms of a Church that, far from being the “counter-cultural” force my conservative Catholic friends have recommended as its natural path, has conformed itself to the cultural and ideological wars that have led our country’s politics to a dreadful impasse.

The polls show that the primary division among Catholics in 2020, as in 2016, is along ethnic and racial lines. White Catholics offer majority support to Donald Trump, Hispanic and Black Catholics oppose him—which means that Catholics are divided along the same lines as the rest of the country.

Perhaps this should not shock us. Except for a brief period in the early 1960s, when four out of five Catholics voted for John F. Kennedy to break the political barriers against their full political participation, Catholics have never been monolithic in their political views. Even Kennedy joked that he had the support of the nuns, while Richard Nixon enjoyed the sympathy of many bishops. It’s an old split.

Since the 1970s, there has been no “Catholic vote”—and yet the Catholic vote has remained important. For a half century, Catholics have been a 40-40-20 group, each party guaranteed about two-fifths of Catholic ballots with the remaining fifth up for grabs. And given the importance of Catholic voters in the non-randomly chosen states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the preferences of that Catholic swing group can matter enormously. Nonetheless, the polarization of Catholics along white/non-white lines is, to say the least, discouraging, because it means that a substantial majority of white Catholics support a man who traffics relentlessly in racism and nativism.

As befits a Church built by immigrants, its leaders have been unusually and properly united in speaking out in defense of new arrivals to our shores and against Trump’s cruel policies toward migrants—reinforced in their witness by Pope Francis. Yet this has not made much of a difference in the views of the faithful. Many Catholics have joined their white Evangelical brethren in supporting Trump because of his (newfound) opposition to abortion, and as a bulwark against what they see as the threat of liberal secularism.

But this alone does not explain Catholic support for Trump, and we must also confront a disturbing truth: that white Catholics, like white Protestants, are in many cases drawn to rather than repulsed by Trump’s appeal to racial backlash. As Robert P. Jones argues in his recent book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, white Christians, including Catholics, were influenced by “powerful fears about the loss of white Christian dominance amid a rapidly changing environment.”

One might have thought that the election of Pope Francis would lead to a call to conscience on such questions and a renewal of a more social Catholicism in the United States. On the contrary, leading American bishops have been among Francis’s most enthusiastic detractors. They have sharply criticized the direction in which he is leading the Church. America’s Catholic bishops continue to speak about “intrinsic evils,” “non-negotiable issues,” and most recently of the battle against abortion as their “preeminent priority”—even as Francis has emphasized the need for a different path. He has said so explicitly, again and again. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” he said early in his papacy.

There are important voices in the hierarchy, the “Francis bishops”—their leaders include Cardinal Blase Cupich in Chicago; Cardinal Joseph Tobin in Newark, New Jersey; and Bishop Robert McElroy in San Diego—who speak boldly, urgently, and lucidly on immigration, the struggle against racism, labor rights, climate change, and social justice. But they are fighting a tide that has been moving in a different direction since the 1980s. The American Catholic conversation has strayed far from both the radical Catholicism of the 1960s (despite the honorable endurance of the Catholic Worker movement) and the liberal Catholicism associated with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s “seamless garment” approach to the life issues, war, economics, and opposition to the death penalty. Bernardin, you might say, prefigured Francis’s priorities. 

The decline of progressive Catholicism reflects not only a reorientation of the hierarchy during the John Paul II and Benedict years, but also a transformation of the American Church’s social base

The decline of progressive Catholicism reflects not only a reorientation of the hierarchy during the John Paul II and Benedict years, but also a transformation of the American Church’s social base. A 2015 Pew Research Center report found that nearly 13 percent of all Americans are former Catholics, people who were raised in the faith but who now identify with other religious traditions, or no religion at all. The Church’s losses have been especially pronounced among the young—only half of millennials raised Catholic have remained in the Church, Pew found, and only 57 percent of Gen Xers have stayed. Those who continue to identify as Catholic are thus older and, on the whole, more conservative. This is a great loss for the Church as a whole, but it is a loss that has specifically decimated social and progressive Catholicism’s successor generation.


There is a kind push-pull effect at work among the Catholic faithful, and in religious America generally. The more that Christianity, including Catholicism, is associated with right-wing politics, the more alienated from religion progressives, especially young people, become—and the more inclined they are to dismiss the institutions of faith and religious people altogether.

But the more this happens, the easier it becomes for right-wing politicians to cast liberals as hostile to belief itself. Few have articulated this view more passionately than Attorney General William Barr, who might fairly be seen as America’s leading Catholic Trumpist (although many seem to be auditioning for this role). Speaking last October at Notre Dame, Barr denounced “the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism,” and argued that “the campaign to destroy the traditional moral order has brought with it immense suffering, wreckage, and misery.” He left no doubt about where the political blame for all this lay. “Among these militant secularists are many so-called ‘progressives,’” Barr said, adding this little jab: “But where is the progress?”

If there was little subtlety here, there was no subtlety at all when Trump declared in August that Joe Biden would “hurt God.” This conceded remarkable spiritual powers to his Democratic opponent. Biden, Trump said, would create a world of “no religion, no anything,” adding, “He’s against God. He’s against guns.” That God is now linked to guns might be distressing, except that the phrase was a giveaway: God, like guns, is about a narrative of social conservatism, not any theological reality.

The attacks on Biden’s religious standing have continued, a sign, perhaps, that the Trump campaign is genuinely worried about a Democrat who talks openly about his faith, attends Mass devotedly, and would become, if he won, only our second Catholic president. Biden’s age may be an asset in this respect: older Catholics who tend to be more conservative can look at him and say, instinctively, “Yeah, he’s one of us.”

This is dangerous to Trump, which is why he mobilized Lou Holtz, Notre Dame’s legendary football coach, to declare at the Republicans’ online convention that “the Biden-Harris ticket is the most radically pro-abortion campaign in history. They and other politicians are Catholic in name only and abandon innocent lives.” And never mind that Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, is a Baptist.

What’s fascinating about 2020 is that Holtz’s “in name only” charge may have done more to arouse anger among Catholics who are not associated with the political Right than to stir the Trump-supporting (or football-loving) Catholic faithful. Fr. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, issued the requisite statement that Holtz’s comments did not reflect any endorsement of Trump from the university. But he went a step farther. “We Catholics,” Jenkins said, “should remind ourselves that while we may judge the objective moral quality of another’s actions, we must never question the sincerity of another’s faith, which is due to the mysterious working of grace in that person’s heart.”

In September, a group of more than 150 Catholic theologians, nuns, and former staffers at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops signed a letter urging Catholic voters to oppose Trump as a man who “flouts core values at the heart of Catholic social teaching.” Their ranks included not only longtime progressive activists such as Sr. Simone Campbell of the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, but also leading Catholic scholars and university officials, including Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, as well as Dolores Leckey, Francis X. Doyle, and Frank Monahan, top former Bishop’s Conference officials from its earlier, more progressive incarnation.

The deep split we are witnessing among Catholic public voices in this year’s campaign is, in one sense, simply a part of the larger struggle going on inside the Church, reflected in conflicting attitudes toward Francis’s project. And those who embrace a more social Catholicism might take heart in the fact that progressive Catholic voices are louder and more widely noticed in 2020 than they have been in past campaigns. This is partly a reflection of the odious nature of Trump’s policies, which also led to the embrace of Never Trumpism by some conservative Catholic intellectuals. To their credit, they refuse to link arms with a man who so regularly flouts common decency.

But the growing public presence of social justice Catholicism predates Trump and Francis’s election. Groups such as Nuns on the Bus, organized by Sr. Simone and NETWORK, commanded sufficient media attention during the 2012 campaign to complicate narratives equating Catholicism with Republican voting and conservative ideology. And while right-wing bishops have in the past been far more outspoken at election time than their more moderate or progressive brethren, there are signs of change this year.

“I think that a person in good conscience could vote for Mr. Biden,” Cardinal Tobin said at a September 15 event co-sponsored by centers at Boston College, Trinity College, and St. Anselm College. “I, frankly, in my own way of thinking have a more difficult time with the other option.”

Yes, the morally “difficult” option is Trump, who, as the editors of America wrote in an editorial published the day after Tobin’s comments, might be “ostensibly pro-life,” but in fact “has undermined the constitutional order to a degree unprecedented in modern U.S. history.”


The crisis created by Trump and Biden’s public embrace of his Catholicism may thus mark the beginning of a new and much-to-be-wished-for phase in the American Church’s political engagement

The crisis created by Trump and Biden’s public embrace of his Catholicism—Biden calls his faith the “bedrock foundation of my life”—may thus mark the beginning of a new and much-to-be-wished-for phase in the American Church’s political engagement. What needs to happen?

For the long run, the bishops must come to understand that a political approach centered on an insistence that abortion must become illegal will keep leading the Church into blind alleys. Many Christian Democratic parties have already recognized this. It is not even a promising strategy for reducing the number of abortions, given the likelihood of a high rate of illegal abortions that would also threaten women’s lives.

This could open the way for creating a genuine culture of life, rooted, as Commonweal columnist Cathleen Kaveny has argued, in a respect for both autonomy and solidarity, and a full embrace of gender equality. It would begin with an acknowledgement that poorer women account for about seventy percent of all abortions in the United States. Robust policies to help poor women (which is to say, a far greater degree of social justice) combined with wider access to contraception (which I know is inconsistent with current Church teaching) would substantially reduce the number of abortions. The paradox is that pushing Catholic social teaching to the forefront will do far more to create a culture of life than the culture-war campaigns of recent decades. And those who insist that faith requires supporting Trump and opposing LGBTQ rights must ponder how doing so closes off so many, especially among the young, to the possibility of dialogue and conversion.

For their part, religious progressives must recognize their obligation to do all they can on their own side to ease the vicious cycle the culture wars have let loose. They need to make clear (as Biden has) that hostility to religion and, at times, to people of faith themselves, is not only politically disastrous but also fundamentally illiberal. It feeds the sorts of arguments that Barr is making and effectively concedes the Christian tradition to reactionaries.

In fact, the Catholic social tradition is decidedly progressive. How progressive? Consider: “The present system stands in grievous need of considerable modifications and improvement. Its main defects are three: enormous inefficiency and waste in the production and distribution of commodities; insufficient incomes for the great majority of wage earners; and unnecessarily large incomes for a small minority of privileged capitalists.” These aren’t Bernie Sanders’s words. They are drawn from the American Catholic Bishops’ 1919 Program for Social Reconstruction that, as the scholar Lew Daly has argued, can be seen in retrospect as having offered the moral underpinnings for what became the New Deal.

The 1919 bishops were writing after a shockingly destructive war, and in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and great economic uncertainty.  A century later, public Catholicism in the United States must be up to the tasks of our own perilous moment. This is no time for underperforming. “If the church is alive,” Pope Francis has said, “it must always surprise.” This would be an excellent occasion for surprises. A God of mercy demands no less. 

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a contributing writer for Commonweal. His most recent book is Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite To Save Our Country (Macmillan, 2020).

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Published in the October 2020 issue: View Contents
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