The Trump era represents an extraordinary period in the history of relations between a U.S. administration and the papacy. I think back to September 2015 when, soon after Donald Trump declared his candidacy, Pope Francis traveled to the United States. American Catholics seemed to rally around the pope, while almost no one was taking Trump’s bid for the presidency seriously. Then his campaign got underway, and he started to gain traction with his promises about building walls and banning Muslims. In early 2016, during an in-flight press conference while heading home from Mexico, the pope dared to describe these proposed policies as “not Christian.” Trump responded by calling Pope Francis’s statement “disgraceful.” It was now clear and on the record that Francis and Trump represented divergent worldviews, a split that EWTN and Fox News gleefully seized on and amplified, driving a narrative that, if not conducive to formal schism, nonetheless reeked of a nationalist Catholicism while undermining belief in the unity of the Church. And it would only get worse from there.
During the 2016 campaign, the Vatican had rooted not-so-secretly for Hillary Clinton. Never mind her stance on abortion, or that as secretary of state she had skipped a trip to the Vatican (becoming the first secretary of state since the Nixon administration not to visit the pope)—she was still the less bad of two bad options. Trump’s victory in November stunned the Vatican, but it didn’t flinch. Rather, it adhered to old diplomatic adages: “Never close a door” and “make yourself predictable.” Of course, this was not to be the way of the new president. While he behaved according to protocol on his visit with the first lady to the Vatican in May 2017, even projecting a sense of diplomatic normalcy, operatives like Newt Gingrich and Steve Bannon were simultaneously forging connections with anti-Francis prelates in a political project aimed at subverting the status quo both in Europe and in the Catholic Church. The idea was to introduce into the symbolic and administrative heart of Catholicism the pathogen that would be known as Trumpism, perhaps even to make Rome the parallel capital of a new anti-European and anti-Francis continent. That project, fortunately, has failed; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s extraordinary October attack against the sovereign diplomacy of the Holy See over its renewal of the September 2018 provisional agreement with China in some ways serves as proof. Indeed, his tantrum might actually have worked to Francis’s benefit, as the Vatican was able to signal to the world that it doesn’t take orders from America.
The Vatican can only be pleased with the arrival of a Biden presidency, and with it a return of diplomatic stability. Pope Francis acknowledging the result of the presidential election and congratulating Biden on November 12 (while Trump still hasn’t conceded) indicates the relief Rome feels. The new administration’s preference for multilateralism aligns with the Vatican’s, and they also converge on important issues like migration and the environment. Soon there will be a new ambassador to the Holy See, and, following the tenure of Calista Gingrich (third wife of Newt), the appointment could send some interesting signals. Recall that President Obama appointed Catholic theology professor Miguel Diaz (2009–2013) and former president of Catholic Relief Services Ken Hackett (2013–2017). There may also be a change in the Vatican’s diplomatic mission to the United States: in January, papal nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre turns seventy-five, the age at which a Catholic bishop must submit his resignation to the pope.
Yet it’s not quite as clear what Biden’s election will mean on the ecclesial front. Trump clearly helped create the atmosphere that emboldened and enabled right-wing Catholics not only to mount their campaign against Francis, but also to attack Biden’s Catholicism. Attempts at schism may have failed, but it’s hard to believe that Trump’s departure will quiet these efforts, at least as long as Francis is pope and Biden is in the White House. And though an America under Biden might seem a better fit with this papacy, it’s worth remembering that the most important documents Francis has produced—Laudato si’, Amoris laetitia, and Fratelli tutti—speak to the United States in a direct and not uncritical way. They don’t at all suggest anti-Americanism, but they do suggest a view of the world that is post-American.
Of course, there’s also the fact of Biden’s Catholicism. The pope and the new president may be nearly of the same generation, but Biden represents a specific kind of American Catholicism that is rapidly becoming a part of the past—a Catholicism shaped by European immigrant tradition and formed by an education largely provided by religious orders (male and female), lived out in densely populated regions of the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Now that the American Church is more ethnically and geographically diverse, he cannot be said to represent either its present or its future. There also remains the division among American Catholics that even a bridge-builder like Francis is unlikely to heal. It is disheartening but instructive to note the refusal of almost the entire U.S. episcopate to condemn Republican attacks on democracy, ranging from voter suppression to the undermining of the electoral process through baseless claims of fraud. Their lukewarm (at best) acknowledgement of Biden’s victory is disconcerting, as is their refusal, so far, to open a dialogue with the president-elect. Trump as of now still refuses to concede and persists with his efforts to overturn the results of an election he clearly lost—while the bishops say nothing. Their silence suggests not neutrality but partisanship, and only hastens the collapse of their credibility.
Right now there is an urgent need for a return of normalcy, and the U.S. bishops could help by saying normal things. The polarization on moral and ethical issues between the two political parties—from sexuality and marriage to immigration and religious freedom—mirrors that in the religious realm, and it has been worsening for decades. But it’s compounded at this moment by the reemergence in mainstream culture of anti-scientific and neo-medieval religious convictions, and their expression through conspiracy theories. (It’s not just an American problem; the most popular Catholic radio station in Italy, Radio Maria, has lately been peddling the theory that COVID-19 was created by cosmopolitan elites in order to destroy the Church.) We need to remember that the American Catholic project is inseparable from the two-century-long project of making the Church a pillar of American freedom. We may have a new president. But we should be concerned about the lasting damage the outgoing one has done. Trumpism still threatens the Catholic contribution to the moral-religious consensus at the basis of democracy in America, along with the viability of the American Catholic project itself.