Speak, Bishops!

The latest outrages from Donald Trump, since last I wrote here a week ago, include 1) obliquely suggesting that gun rights absolutists assassinate Hillary Clinton should she be elected president and 2) insisting, more than once, that Clinton and President Obama founded ISIS and find honor within it. These are not merely “unprecedented” provocations from a major party’s candidate for the presidency; they are dangerous, corrosive violations of democratic norms. It’s amazing to have to say it: Presidential candidates of major parties do not suggest that other candidates be assassinated. Presidential candidates of major parties do not accuse sitting presidents and other candidates of treason without the gravest evidence.

Most of the comments on my post, “Voting One’s (Catholic) Conscience,” concerned whether the November election will be rigged, as Trump also outrageously claimed, and U.S. policy toward Syria (not sure why). The chairperson of the organization Concerned Catholics of Vermont, however, was “inspired” by my reflections on the limits of the USCCB’s Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship to draft a letter to the ordinary of Burlington, Vermont, Bishop Christopher Coyne.

I closed my post by asking whether the bishops might speak again. The steering committee of Concerned Catholics of Vermont, which includes two regular Commonweal contributors, Dennis O’Brien and Nicholas Clifford, asks Bishop Coyne both to urge the bishops to speak and to speak himself. I figure that, if the editors of the New York Times allow Maureen Dowd to give her right-wing brother Kevin space once per year on the paper’s op-ed page, the editors of Commonweal will not begrudge my giving CCOVT a little air time on dotCommonweal. The letter follows; its last several paragraphs concern the Trump campaign.

August 12, 2016

Dear Bishop Coyne,

            In your role as Chair of the Committee for the Communications Office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, we urge you to press the bishops to speak out before the election in November about the negative character of the current presidential campaign.

            As you well know, during the November 2015 meeting of the USCCB, the assembled bishops formally approved Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship. Unlike previous years, there was significant controversy about the text. Bishop Robert McElroy from San Diego objected to the version offered because it “does not take into account the fact that Pope Francis...transformed the prioritization of Catholic Social Teaching...” (National Catholic Reporter, Nov. 19, 2015). At the June meeting of the USCCB you yourself noted a concern that the priorities gave the impression that the bishops were “doing the same thing we have always done” (NCR, June 11,2015).

            The Concerned Catholics of Vermont Steering Committee is in full agreement with your views and those of Bishop McElroy and other bishops who called for a new version of Faithful Citizenship that would reflect the directions Pope Francis suggested when he spoke to the United States bishops in September 2015 at the National Cathedral. 

            According to news reports of the November 2015 USCCB meeting, the bishops decided that, whatever the defects of the current version of Faithful Citizenship, it was unrealistic to seek a thorough revision given the fact that the political campaigns were already active. While it may have been practical and necessary at that time to issue Faithful Citizenship in its current form, we believe that the negative conduct of the current presidential campaign calls for a further statement from the USCCB.

            Faithful Citizenship is directed at policies and proposals offered by parties and candidates. The document notes that the political platforms and policy proposals of candidates will often deviate in one way or another from the goals of Catholic teaching. Accordingly, the Catholic voter will have to balance positives and negatives in determining candidates to support. Voters must also weigh the personal character of candidates. While these considerations are eminently sensible for voting in our pluralistic society, in our judgement they are inadequate for evaluating a candidate like Donald Trump and the character of his campaign.

            Donald Trump’s campaign has gone well beyond normal political controversy to become a threat to the political process of a democratic society. Democratic political process is grounded on civic respect, acceptance of the other party, the other candidate, the other voter as a legitimate participant in the affairs of state. Repeatedly Mr. Trump has by passed sharp political critique to demean and belittle opponents in both his own party and the opposition. The opponent is a suspect citizen, an “enemy.” Not only is this undemocratic, it is also un-Christian.

            It is no wonder that Mr. Trump’s supporters often resort to racial epithets and suggest disorder in the streets should his cause fail at the ballot box. Mr. Trump himself has reinforced this possibility by suggesting that the election system is “rigged.” The fact that Mr. Trump claims that he “alone” can fix “the system” only underlines the anti-democratic message of his campaign.

            While American law makes it impossible for the USCCB or any ecclesiastical institution to make a statement singling out a specific candidate, we believe that the bishops would be within their rights to offer a stern warning about a campaign strategy that undermines civic discourse. Legal expert Prof. Cathleen Kaveny of Boston College has just published a book titled Prophecy Without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square. As Kaveny’s title suggests, political indictment, even religious prophecy in the public square, must be without contempt. Donald Trump is campaigning on contempt and as such he is destroying the delicate fabric of democracy. 

            In an effort to instill a sense of civic decency in the 2016 presidential campaign we hope that you would urge the USCCB to speak out. In addition, we ask you to consider making an appropriate public statement on the issue either alone or with other Vermont religious leaders.

With prayerful regard,

For the CCOVT Steering Committee

Dennis O’Brien

CCOVT Steering Committee: 

Terese Black, Gary Chicoine, Nicholas Clifford, Frankie Dunleavy, Martha Hennessy, Ursula Hirschman, Diane Lanpher, Dennis O’Brien, Janice Ryan, RSM

Bernard G. Prusak is associate professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Catholic Moral Philosophy in Practice and Theory: An Introduction (Paulist Press, 2016). 

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