Catholic voters' impossible choice
Of all the lunatic political ideas I have ever seen foisted upon the Catholic laity, perhaps the most self-evidently absurd is the idea that we are somehow obligated to take part in what some people still quaintly refer to as "the democratic process." So far from being an absolute moral imperative, voting was proscribed in Italy under pain of mortal sin as recently as a century ago. If a more recent discipline has enjoined the reverse upon the faithful it is unknown to me and to the code of canon law.
A better case could be made that Catholics, not only in this country but in the vast majority of the world's so-called "developed" nations, should refrain from voting entirely save perhaps for local candidates or direct ballot initiatives.
Two recent controversies illustrate my position better than any formal argument could. The first occurred on Tuesday, when Thomas Tobin, the bishop of Providence, tweeted that 2020 was the "first time in a while that the Democratic ticket hasn't had a Catholic on it," clearly in reference to Joe Biden. The Boston Globe informed readers that "Tobin's zinger apparently was aimed at Biden's support for abortion rights, one of several church teachings with which many Catholics disagree," as if the meaning and value of human life were an open question in the Church, like the relative merits of Gothic chasubles. The paper also quoted Fr. James Martin, who observed, accurately, that "Mr. Biden is a baptized Catholic. Thus, he is a Catholic." (The same could be said of Hilary Mantel, who is rarely described as a "Catholic novelist.")
A more reasonable criticism of Tobin's words would point out that Biden himself has appeared on the Democratic ticket in two of the previous three election cycles, which renders the bishop's joke incoherent. The other two Catholics Democrats who have been nominated for president or vice president in recent years, John Kerry and Tim Kaine, share all of Biden's odious positions. All three of these men are what might be politely referred to as "cultural" Catholics, persons for whom their religion is as much as a quasi-ethnic identity as it is anything else. Each of them proudly supports abortion, and Biden has even officiated at a same-sex wedding. There is nothing new about this situation regardless of how many people think it untoward for a bishop to speak this way to a member of the laity.
Far more interesting than the perennial attempts of Democratic politicians to shore up the votes of nominal Catholics is what President Trump's re-election campaign has done with its official Catholic outreach group. Among those appointed three weeks ago to the advisory board of Catholics For Trump is Taylor Marshall, an author and YouTube personality who is best known for his inflammatory remarks about the current occupant of the Holy See. In a recent video entitled "Why Is Pope Francis Against Trump?" Marshall baldly asserts that "Pope Francis has compared President Trump to Hitler, to the Nazis." Never mind the fact that the Holy Father has never said anything of the kind in his published remarks or in any comments attributed to him or that Trump has himself visited Rome at Francis' request. This is Marshall's modus operandi: getting Catholics to be angry at the pope by distorting or simply lying about the latter's views. Doing so in the course of a political campaign on behalf of a major political party has been unthinkable since at least the Roosevelt administration, but we live in strange times.
What do Trump's people hope to accomplish with Marshall, I wonder? Pope Francis has likened abortion to the Holocaust and declared gender ideology more dangerous than nuclear weapons. The kind of people who think that for all this he is some kind of crypto-Marxist trying to destroy the Church from the inside were not clamoring at the door to vote for Biden anyway. The decision to involve Marshall is a reminder not that the Catholic vote is up for grabs but that vast swathes of it are already so devoted to Trump that nothing, not even mocking Christ's vicar, will change their minds.
In November Catholics face a choice between a de-facto apostate and a twice-divorced serial philanderer who solicits their votes by fomenting hatred of the pope. It is impossible to make the case for the former, not least because Biden's centrist platform does not speak more fully to Catholic social teaching on economic issues than his opponent's does. Trump is barely more defensible; the old argument that voting Republican will lead to the nomination of reliable Supreme Court justices no longer holds water. Instead, the Catholic case for the president's re-election, such as it is, rests upon the bare calculation that Trump is better than the alternative and that he will in some undefined sense make things better.
Will he? Or rather has he? Four years into his presidency, it seems to me that Trump's name could be replaced with Nixon's in an essay like this one and that it would be as relevant as it was half a century ago. For all practical purposes he has been a generic, replacement-level Republican president who has cut taxes and made occasional half-hearted gestures in the direction of his socially conservative supporters. This is why, one suspects, Trump has received qualified praise and (at times deservedly fierce) criticism from the American bishops in more or less equal measure.
If only there were a name on the ballot who deserved more of the former.