Radically Catholic in the Age of Trump

Painting by Giovanni Paolo Panini. Image in the public domain.
Painting by Giovanni Paolo Panini. Image in the public domain.

For several years now, I’ve attended daily Mass at St. Clare Church, where the average parishioner could be described as white, old, and well-off. For the first couple of years, I routinely joined other communicants for the Wednesday “Coffee and …” in the parish center. Eventually, though, I had to stop attending. When someone asked me why I wasn’t coming around anymore, my response was “Because I want to think the best of you all.” You see, I heard things on Wednesday mornings that would curl your hair, not from everyone or even most, but from enough that I was shocked (and I’m not easily shocked by church people). Poor women should be sterilized so they can’t have more kids. We should simply nuke the entire Middle East and be done with it. The problem with “the blacks” is that they are lazy. Illegal immigrants should be shot crossing the Rio Grande. All these observations and others easily tumbled off tongues that not a half hour before had received the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion. For a convert like me, Wednesday “Coffee, and …” came close to inducing a crisis of faith. So, I decided to forgive them all and just stop showing up.

I thought about the Wednesday “Coffee and …” yesterday when the Pew Research Center released preliminary data that 60% of white Catholics and a whopping 81% of white Evangelicals – the faith tradition of my youth – had voted for Donald Trump.  (Full disclosure: I wrote in Michael A. Maturen and Juan A. Munoz of the American Solidarity Party for President and Vice-President.) I would like to believe that many of those Christians chose Trump in spite of his support for a variety of grave evils, just as I would like to believe that many voted for Clinton in spite of her support for abortion and other moral issues. But the evidence of my own experience suggests that may not be true, and that experience includes direct exposure to priests who gleefully embrace the entirety of the Trump agenda, including its most condemnable elements. (By contrast, I don’t know any Catholic or Evangelical who supported Clinton precisely because of her abortion advocacy.)

As a result, my crisis of faith is back on. No, I don’t doubt the truths embedded in the Creed. Nor do I doubt the apostolic authority of the Church. But I do have grave questions about an American church in which Christians can so blithely elide, dismiss, or justify evils like poverty, war, torture, the abuse of immigrants and workers, and even racial discrimination, all while uncritically adopting the idolatry of American Exceptionalism, with its creedal articles of Original Goodness and Manifest Destiny, and its cult of soldier-worship. I’ve seen more Catholics weep on the Fourth of July than I ever have on Good Friday, and that, to me, is an indictment of bishops and other ecclesial leaders whose job is to “teach, sanctify, and govern.”

During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton famously consigned half of Trump’s supporters to a metaphorical “basket of deplorables,” an assignation that in the end may have cost her the election. Now, one shouldn’t accuse persons of being deplorable (although it is perfectly legitimate to deplore their behaviors and beliefs), and certainly no one is “unredeemable,” in Clinton’s words. But there is indeed a basket of deplorables the contents of which are succinctly (though not exhaustively) described in Gaudium et Spes and quoted by Pope St. John Paul in Veritatis Splendor:

Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator.”

This is the minimum standard of biblical justice, and this is the test to which every secular government must be put. By this standard, the United States of America fails utterly today and would have continued to fail whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton had won on Tuesday. But Trump did win, and with a Republican Congress he will have the opportunity to put his entire agenda into law. To the extent that his agenda violates the bolded prohibitions above, it must be actively opposed: nonviolently, to be sure, but firmly and constantly. The judgment of God rests on this nation, conceived in bondage and sustained in blood, and we cannot escape our responsibility to speak prophetically to the powers that be.

So, what to do? How do we navigate the Trump Era? My prescription is the same for every era of human history: Be radically rooted in the Gospel. Be a living judgment on the rulers of the darkness of this age.

First, be a Catholic, which ought to be a radical and even revolutionary way of life; and not just in the Empire of Man but also within the Church herself! Reject the syncretism and idolatry of party labels, political allegiances, secular ideologies, and even attachments to nation. Resist evil in all its forms, taking care not to let hatred or violence seep into your soul and destroy your witness.

Second, cultivate the consciousness of a man or woman in exile, a stranger in an alien land. The Kingdom of God is our true home and destiny, and while we sojourn here below the Church is our country. Therefore, our communion extends beyond artificial divisions, including national borders, to encompass all the baptized, wherever they may be.

Third, practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy with zeal: Feed the hungry, give drink the thirsty, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead, admonish sinners, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubting, give comfort to the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, and pray for the living and dead, including your enemies. This is a radical program for life, what Peter Maurin called “the dynamite of the Church.” This is the heart of discipleship, inspired by the Cross, fueled by the Sacraments and guided by the Holy Spirit.

Last, be prepared for ridicule and persecution, not just from those we already offend—“liberals,” “right-wingers”—but also from everyone, on all sides. A Christian who has never been ridiculed or persecuted, especially by those he considers his friends, has good reason to wonder what’s wrong with his faith. And a Christian who constructs his life in order to avoid ridicule and persecution isn’t worthy of the name. Too many of us have become imperial subjects, happy to get along by going along. Pope Francis is calling us to something higher and far more risky. He’s asking us to recover the radical perspective of St. Peter, who wrote “Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were  happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:12).

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