Then-president Trump addresses thousands of pro-life supporters during the 2020 March for Life in Washington (OSV News photo/Leah Millis, Reuters).

Recent months brought two developments that could (and should) give influential voices within conservative Catholicism the opportunity to distance themselves from Donald Trump as the Republican party’s candidate for president.

The first was Trump’s statement in April that he would not support a nationwide abortion ban, thus putting him at odds with, among others, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has continued to characterize abortion as the “pre-eminent” issue for voters. The second was Trump’s felony conviction, in May, on thirty-four counts of falsifying business records in relation to paying off porn star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election. (His sentencing is set for July 11, just days before the Republican convention in Milwaukee.)

Indeed, there are already signs of that distancing. While Trump-supporting Evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress remain firm in their backing, Catholic voices on the Right appear to be seeking a different dynamic. Though there’s been criticism about the alleged political motives behind Trump’s criminal trial and conviction, Catholic conservatives don’t seem to be quite as enthusiastic about him or his movement as their white Evangelical counterparts. In a recent First Things podcast, Sohrab Ahmari—though calling the New York trial politically motivated—talked about the need “to forge a new American center.” In a May 14 article in First Things, Jonathon Van Maren wrote that “it would be shortsighted to dismiss the pro-choice rhetoric of Donald Trump and other MAGA figures as mere electioneering.... There are indications that the Trump campaign now sees pro-lifers as a political inconvenience.” In April, Carl Trueman characterized Trump as “a candidate for the presidency who treats Christians as nothing more than promising marks for his hucksterism.” These seem a departure from the manifesto “against the dead consensus” that First Things published in March 2019. (“We embrace the new nationalism insofar as it stands against the utopian ideal of a borderless world that, in practice, leads to universal tyranny. Whatever else might be said about it, the Trump phenomenon has opened up space in which to pose these questions anew. We will guard that space jealously.”)

Trump’s amorality has always been evident, but now that he has dropped the pretenses that were necessary in appealing to religious voters in 2016 and 2020, it seems to have some conservative Catholics recalculating their relationship to him. It isn’t explicitly an anti-Trump or “never Trump” response. It’s more like a purposeful “non-Trump” posture. Disavowing Trump and Trumpism now is perhaps a way to avoid being associated with the developments of recent months, or of being seen as complicit with what a second Trump term could bring. It may also be a way to get positioned for a possible post-Trump era. Either way, it could accelerate recent ideological shifts among right-of-center Catholics and neo-Catholic intellectuals looking for a new collective cultural and theological identity.

There is a historical precedent. Near the end of World War II, some twenty years after its endorsement of Mussolini in the 1920s, the Vatican understood that its deal with the devil was endangering the moral and institutional survival of the Catholic Church (it was even putting the personal safety of Pius XII at risk, given the Allied bombings of occupied Rome and the real risk of the pope being kidnapped by the Nazis). The years after World War II saw the creation—with the blessing of the Vatican—of Europe’s centrist Christian-Democratic parties. There’s also the example of the 1970s: sensing the corruption that was creeping into those Christian-Democratic parties, some European Catholic post–Vatican II political movements declared a “religious option” that reframed the relationship between Catholic identity and political action. That meant greater autonomy for the Catholic laity from the party that religious voters were supposed to support; the Church (the Vatican and bishops) then also pulled back on political messaging and rhetoric to voters during the campaigns.

Catholic conservatism may not have a natural party affiliation in the U.S.

Of course, a Catholic party has never been in the cards for the United States, and it’s even less likely now, given the diminishing role of religion and religious institutions. But there is still something to take from this example. Perhaps, for instance, conservative Catholics will embark on a new path when it comes to politics—not electorally, but in how they position themselves vis-à-vis Trump and the GOP.  Unsurprisingly, the USCCB did not acknowledge the evolving political climate at its June meeting in Louisville, making no mention of how its declaration of abortion as the “pre-eminent” issue for voters will be affected. The emphasis for now seems to be on the National Eucharistic Revival, which is in part a response to the Vatican’s rebuke in 2021 over attempts to deny communion to President Biden and Nancy Pelosi. But in a welcome statement a few days after the meeting, Archbishop Borys Gudziak, chairman of the USCCB Committee for Domestic Justice and Human Development, urged all Christians and people of good will to avoid political violence and instead pursue peace through dialogue and justice: “People in public office are receiving more death threats than ever before, some of which turn into physical attacks. About half of Americans expect there will be violence in response to future presidential elections results.”

The fact is that there is no moral, intellectual, and theological center of gravity anymore, in either our political or our ecclesial system. Many Catholics seem to be reconsidering their relationship with the pivotal figure of the last three election cycles. This is especially true for those who clearly do not identify with or support Joe Biden and the Democratic party. Trump’s continued grip on the GOP is more and more of a problem for conservative religious leaders who have realized that any hope of domesticating or “baptizing” him is futile.

With the way the campaign is unfolding, and with the very real prospect of a second Trump presidency, Catholic conservatism may not have a natural party affiliation in the United States. The transformation of the GOP under Trump makes it a bad fit, and the Democrats are clearly not an option. The feeling of political homelessness may only add to the sense of cultural displacement in a country that continues to grow more secular. Perhaps the perceived risk of moral contamination from Trumpism will prompt a new focus on theology and doctrine—a “religious option” that functions as an off-ramp from the focus on politics. That might lead to an alternative (not a mirror-like opposition) to the predominance of identity politics and social-justice theological sensibilities on the Catholic Left. It remains to be seen how post-Trump Catholic conservatism will view the relationship between church and state, especially if, as some believe, integralism has waned since 2016 and 2020. But it is scarcely conceivable that it will follow the example of centrist, anti-Fascist political Catholicism in Italy, which accepted and contributed to a non-hostile, collaborative, and Church-friendly regime of laïcité.

None of this is likely to change American politics at large. But it might change the intra-ecclesial conversation, fostering new input and insights from the Right. As to the Left: it will be interesting to see what happens as the generation of Catholic Democrats symbolized by Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and John Kerry passes. In a political system that is ideologically centrifugal and tends to push away from the center, the reactions to a second Trump presidency might have a paradoxically stabilizing effect on American Catholicism. In any case, preparations for a post-Trump era should begin now, because the call to political violence and damage to the credibility of the Christian faith done in his name will continue, whatever the result of the next presidential election.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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