In a phone call last April with 600 Catholic leaders, including Archbishop Gomez, President of the USCCB, and Cardinal Dolan of New York, President Trump referred to himself as the “best [president] in the history of the Catholic Church.” While none of those on the call positively confirmed this distinction, neither did they demur, nor did they challenge Trump’s warning that if he were defeated in November “You’re going to have a very different Catholic Church.”
And so it came to pass. With the inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20, the nation had its first glimpse of that “very different Catholic Church.” For many Americans, it wasn’t so bad: an appealing image of a devout Catholic whose faith, nurtured by prayer and the Sacraments, has sustained him through personal tragedies, fostered his capacity for compassion and inspired a lifetime of service to the common good.
Assuming office in the midst of a pandemic that has claimed more than 400,000 U.S. lives, and on the very ground where only two weeks earlier, a murderous mob had tried to overturn the election, Biden simply spoke from his heart about healing, justice, truth, care for the earth and the most vulnerable among us, and cited St. Augustine’s teaching that a people is “a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” And then, as he does every Sunday, he attended Mass.
It was, of course. naïve to think that Biden’s words would heal a bitterly divided nation. But perhaps, for one day, this spectacle of faith and civic devotion—under such unprecedented circumstances—might have passed without a reminder of the divisions in the American Catholic Church. But that was not to be. Archbishop Gomez, on behalf of the USCCB, issued a lengthy letter acknowledging President Biden’s faith and understanding of “the importance of religious faith and institutions.” But the burden of his letter was to emphasize that “our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.”
To be sure, it is true that the USCCB and its commissions had from time to time issued statements of disapproval about the Trump administration’s cruel separation of children from their parents at the border, the zealous implementation of the death penalty or other policies (too numerous to name), that surely threatened “human life and dignity.” Typically, these statements referenced the “administration” rather than the president, and never in terms of “moral evil.” Such statements were treated as obligatory nods to Catholic social teaching, with no influence or impact or public policy or any claim on the attention of the average Catholic; the faithful; they were obviously subordinate to the priority of Trump’s commitment to the “pro-life” cause, his support for “religious liberty” and Catholic schools—the subjects covered in the friendly phone call in April.
Did the bishops truly believe that Donald Trump was “pro-life?” Or did they cynically welcome his support, knowing it was encased in lies and cruelty? Because Trump is evidently a psychopath—in the precise sense of a person incapable of remorse, empathy, insight or comprehension of truth—his embrace of the “pro-life” banner had the effect of degrading the meaning of the term, while also degrading the moral authority of anyone who welcomed his alliance.
Yet even before the inauguration, Gomez had been worrying that the election of a Catholic president like Biden “creates confusion among the faithful about what the Catholic Church actually teaches.” To address this potential confusion, he convened a task force of bishops to consider the problem of “Eucharistic coherence”—in other words, raising the possibility that Biden might be barred from Communion.
And yet one might legitimately ask whether the bishops themselves had created confusion among the faithful about what the Catholic Church actually teaches. Pope Francis has made it clear that concern for refugees, opposition to the death penalty, and care for the earth are inseparable from the church’s commitment to life. And yet if that teaching was lost on many American Catholics, who bore the blame for that confusion?
Still, in a land rent by divisions that President Trump had recently whipped up to a murderous frenzy, the inauguration offered hope that healing was possible, both for our country and for our Church. It raised the promise, beyond the differing prudential judgments about how to translate our faith into public policy, that a People of God is also a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.
The final word goes, as it did on the inauguration itself, to the extraordinary poem by Amanda Gorman, a young African American Catholic woman, which wrestled eloquently with the tensions between the history we bear and the promise that propels us forward:
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
Robert Ellsberg is the editor of the works of Dorothy Day and the author of many books on saints, mostly recently A Living Gospel: Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives.