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Analysis: Who speaks for American Catholics?

shutterstock 1841096887 "Worship Protest" on the National Mall during the COVID-19 pandemic. / Nicole Glass Photography/Shutterstock

As partisan divides continue to deepen and solidify across the country, Catholics and Catholicism are being drawn into the political fray.

With an incoming Biden administration signaling its antagonism to Catholic institutions and values, and an increasingly vocal minority of Americans refusing even to accept the legitimacy of the election, many Catholics are looking to the Church for guidance. What they see and hear are wildly conflicting signals about where the Church stands, what its priorities are, and what even it means to be a Catholic in America.

Even before the election, both party conventions featured prominent Catholic speakers, including priests and religious sisters. As Trump sought to run on his staunch opposition to abortion, and Biden repeatedly invoked his own cultural Catholicism during the campaign, Catholic bishops, parishes, and families have been pulled in opposite directions.

While some bishops have shown themselves willing to engage with one or other particular side of the political divide, many Catholics are looking for leadership that brings a clear, distinctly Catholic voice in answer to the confusion and division, and articulates a vision for society that represents the entirety of the Church’s message, on its own terms.

During their online Fall General Assembly last month, the U.S. bishops acknowledged the unique “challenges” presented by the current political landscape, most especially the “confusion” caused by an incoming president who is personally at odds with the moral teaching of the Church and opposed to the religious freedom of Catholic religious orders.

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At the end of the meeting, USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez announced the creation of a special ad hoc committee to help the bishops “navigate” this “difficult and complex situation.” But while that committee gets on quietly with the nuanced work of formulating a strategy, other individual bishops and clergy have waded in for themselves.

Newly minted Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington has repeatedly said he will not deny Biden Communion, despite the President-elect’s open support for abortion, and the clear teaching of the Vatican that Catholic politicians who do so are in a state of public grave sin.

Gregory has said that holding out the possibility of imposing the Church’s medicinal discipline would be like having a “gun on the table” when he meets with Biden. The cardinal has said he prefers to “dialogue” with next president on areas of common cause, while accepting that they will “not agree” on some things, like the Church’s preeminent concern with ending legal abortion.

“I hope that I don’t highlight one over the other,” Gregory said.

For many U.S. Catholics, Gregory’s position reads as a tacit endorsement of the nation’s most prominent and powerful layman rejecting core Church teaching and suffering no apparent spiritual harm. Whatever the USCCB committee might conclude, it is unlikely to come up with a response strong enough to answer the eventual image of President Biden attending Mass in St. Matthew’s Cathedral.

When, as seems likely, Biden’s administration renews legal attacks on groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, or champions legislation to recognize the pseudo-science of gender theory (also explicitly rejected by the Church), many might reasonably infer that there is nothing prohibitively unCatholic about siding with the President against the Church.

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On the other side of the political divide, a few Catholic bishops have shown themselves willing to share platforms with divisive figures largely regarded as the political fringe.

On Saturday, a “Jericho March” rally was held on the National Mall in support of President Donald Trump who, event organizers maintained, actually won the general election, despite ballot counts and court decisions to the contrary. 

In addition to popular YouTube conspiracy theorists, religious figures from across several denominations spoke at the event, including Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, and the former papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.

Throughout the day, attendees and viewers online were told that Trump would serve a second term and that this had been confirmed to speakers via divine revelation. Archbishop Vigano, who lives in hiding and has seemed recently to call into question the validity of Vatican Council II, appeared by video link, telling the crowd to pray that God dispel “the lies and deceptions of the children of darkness.”

While not explicitly endorsing claims that Biden’s victory had been achieved by some sort of national or international voter fraud campaign, Vigano led the rally in prayer that “truth will triumph over lies, justice over abuse and fraud,” and that “the walls of the deep state, behind which evil is barricaded, will come crashing down.”

Also appearing via video was Bishop Strickland, who himself did not address the explicitly partisan agenda of the rally, and who did not actually turn to face the camera during his appearance. Strickland led a prayer “for our nation at this time,” which “proudly proclaims that we are one nation under God.”

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While neither bishop acknowledged the other speakers at the event, many Catholics will have understood their decision to share a platform with them as a tacit endorsement; speakers who insist that “God rose up [sic] Donald Trump to stand against the enemy,” and that “this is the beginning of the great revival before the antiChrist comes.”

While many American Catholics, and indeed American Catholic bishops, will likely find themselves equally uncomfortable with the apparent moral equivocation being offered to Biden, and the conspiracy-laden, apocalyptic rhetoric swirling around Trump, what has not emerged is an evangelical and episcopal voice, or cadre of voices, that can rival the potency of either.

The work of the USCCB and its various committees has and certainly will continue to play an important role in articulating a coherent Catholic message and response to different political issues as they arise. But statements and press releases, however well crafted, simply cannot compete with the striking imagery of a president in the Communion line, or a bishop sharing a stage with a demagogue.

Unless and until bishops emerge to challenge both sides, offering a distinctly and wholly Catholic voice for unity in and with the Church, American Catholicism risks appearing less like a united flock and ever more like the divided country it is called to evangelize.

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