Crisis reveals and clarifies. At a time when Catholic bishops, public intellectuals, and editors need to speak and act with moral clarity more than ever, the past month has seen such leaders doing the opposite. The cardinal of New York cozied up to the president. Editors at a respected national Catholic publication abruptly removed articles critical of the cardinal from their website. A prominent conservative Catholic commentator used Twitter to mock people who wear protective face masks. If anyone still wonders why young people continue to leave the church, and why many of us who stay are often anguished by our fellow Catholics with pulpits and platforms, the evidence is not hard to find.
On a phone call between Catholic leaders and President Trump that went public after a report in Crux, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan seemed barely able to contain his enthusiasm for a president who uses cruelty as a political weapon, energizes white supremacists, and degrades anyone who challenges him. The cardinal defended his chumminess on the call, and follow-up cheerleading for the president on Fox News, with the kind of false equivalency that often characterizes many bishops’ engagement in politics. “Look, are we in the sacred enterprise of accompaniment and engagement and dialogue or are we not? When you do it, you risk criticism from both sides,” Cardinal Dolan said in response to critics, specifically, those two thousand Catholics—including religious sisters, clergy, and theologians—who signed an open letter released by my organization, Faith in Public Life.
Bishops and other faith leaders have a right to engage with the White House. What Cardinal Dolan fails to acknowledge is the difference between “dialogue” or “accompaniment” and deferential coziness. When Trump boasted he was the best president in “the history of the Catholic Church”—and urged those on the call to get out the vote for his reelection— not one of the six hundred Catholic educators and bishops even politely pushed back against the president. That silence sends a message, even if unintentional, that church leaders will accommodate racism, misogyny, nativism, and cruelty in exchange for anti-abortion judges and funding for Catholic schools. We should expect more from bishops than transactional politics.
Cardinal Dolan’s defense that he sometimes applauds Democratic politicians and gets criticism from both the right and left isn’t a satisfactory response. While it’s true that neither political party fully reflects the expansiveness of Catholic social teaching, this default framework is proving inadequate to the urgency of the Trump era. False equivalency prevents us from speaking honestly. It’s one political party that has been twisted into the image of a demagogue who abuses power. It’s one party now defined by right-wing nationalism rooted in reactionary white resentment toward an increasingly diverse society. It’s one party obstructing policies that confront the existential threat of climate change. It’s lawmakers from one party who continue to put up barriers to voting rights. All of this is done by Republicans who call themselves “pro-life.”