When I was growing up in Germany in the 1960s, during the holiday seasons, both Christmas and Easter, one of the highlights on television was the reruns of “Don Camillo and Peppone.” These are movies that involve the adventures of a Catholic priest and a communist mayor, taking place in a small village in the Po valley in northern Italy. The protagonists are constantly at loggerheads, yet in the end they always find a compromise, based on mutual understanding and appreciation. The time is the immediate postwar period, when both the Italian Catholic Church and Italy’s Communist Party were at the height of their influence and power. For the Catholic Church, this meant substantial interference in Italian politics.
Sex Abuse Is the Moral Downfall of the Catholic Church
One of the most drastic attempts to wield such influence was the Vatican’s decision in mid-1949 to excommunicate all members of the Communist Party. Given the fact that communism was “materialist and anti-Christian,” anyone who came out in support of the ideology automatically expressed their hostility “to God, religion and the Church” and, therefore, had no place among the community of believers. In a country where faith in the Catholic Church and its teachings were deeply ingrained, this was a formidable weapon. It is to the credit of the creator of Don Camillo and Peppone, Giovannino Guareschi, that he showed in many of his stories that this had little to do with reality on the ground — that somebody could be a communist and a good Catholic.
In contemporary Italy, these are stories of a bygone era, one where the Christian Democrats still were the predominant party and where Italians still flocked to the churches. By now, the Christian Democrats are politically dead, and Italian churches have become museums rather than places of worship. In my own country, Germany, the Catholic Church has long abandoned its anti-socialist rhetoric aimed at the Social Democrats, perhaps, but not only, because the SPD has largely abandoned any pretense to be a socialist party.
Even in Ireland and in Poland, the Catholic Church is increasingly in a defensive position. Take, for instance, recent shocking official revelations about decades of neglect and abuse in Ireland’s mother and baby homes. Most of them run by religious orders affiliated with the Catholic Church, they reflected a “brutally misogynistic culture” promoted by the church. This culture resulted not only in unmarried women and girls being held “virtual prisoners” in these “homes” but also in the death of thousands of babies, oftentimes buried anonymously in mass graves. Under the circumstances, the Catholic Church’s adamant pro-life stance rings somewhat hollow.
The church’s taking the moral high ground has also started to undermine the position of the Polish Catholics. It was recent scandals about the sexual abuse of children involving, most infamously, an icon of Polish Catholicism, Henryk Jankowski, a legend of the Solidarność movement that was instrumental in putting an end to Poland’s communist regime. His statue was toppled by protesters in 2019 in the city of Gdansk, before being officially dismantled and removed. The fact that until today, the Polish Catholic Church has refused to accept responsibility has led to a dramatic loss of trust in its authority. The church, in turn, has sought to divert attention from the crimes committed in its name by targeting the country’s LGTBQ community as the new “plague that seeks to dominate our souls, hearts and our mind.”
I doubt that the American Catholic Church is tuned in to developments in contemporary Poland or that it has any awareness of the far-reaching influence of the Italian Catholic Church in the immediate postwar period. Yet the parallels are striking, particularly in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. This time, President Donald Trump garnered roughly 50% of the Catholic vote and about 57% among white Catholics. To be sure, Catholics voted for Trump for a range of different reasons. “Pro-life” considerations probably rank very high, if not highest, particularly among white Catholics. So do anti-immigrant sentiments. Among Hispanics, economic considerations appear to have had a significant influence on electoral choice, plus the open hostility a number of Catholic spiritual leaders have expressed toward Joe Biden and the Democratic Party in general.
Take, for instance, Jesse Romero, a former cop turned into a well-known Catholic evangelist, who appears to have personally “witnessed diabolical satanic activity,” recounted in his 2019 book, “The Devil in the City of Angels: My Encounters With the Diabolical.” A cop staring down the devil — what other qualifications does one need to be a major authority on spiritual guidance? In early 2020, Romero published a book that proclaimed that a vote for Trump was the only choice for Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike. Those interested in the rationale behind Romero’s plea should consult his response to a Never Trump Catholic, which provides a long list of Trump’s “accomplishments” starting with his “pro-life” measures. What about him being a liar and philanderer? Who cares?
To be sure, Romero is nothing more than another one of these evangelical snake oil salesmen that clutter America’s airwaves. Usually, they are of the Protestant persuasion; but then, the US is an equal opportunity country, and Romero is certainly not the worst of the lot, at least on the Catholic side.
Party of Death
A recent post on the Jesuit America magazine website provides a sobering account of the extent to which Catholic officials have gone to incite hatred toward Joe Biden and the Democrats. The author quotes one priest who posted a clip to YouTube that charged that the Democratic platform was “against everything the Catholic Church teaches.” Therefore, American Catholics who voted for the Democrats should “just quit pretending” to be Catholics. Those contemplating voting for Biden should repent of “their support of that party and its platform or face the fires of hell.” Christianity in action.
And who cares that Biden is, in fact, a practicing Catholic, while Donald Trump, as his Presbyterian Protestant congregation puts it, is not an “active member.” As Rick Stika, the bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee, put it in a tweet in August, Biden should not claim to be a good Catholic “as he denies so much of Church teaching especially on the absolute child abuse and human rights violations of the most innocent, the not yet born.” As a member of an institution infamous for widespread abuse of the most innocent, Stika should have known better than to use this kind of language. And yet, as an article in the National Catholic Reporter has documented, he was hardly the only top Catholic dignitary to question Biden’s Catholic faith and credentials.
When God Hates America
Lower ranks followed suit. One priest posted a clip that called the Democrats the “party of death.” This is a trope that has been around for years, first introduced by the former St. Louise Archbishop Raymond Burke. Burke was appointed to the Vatican’s highest court in 2008 from where he attacked both Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, who, he charged, “while presenting themselves as good Catholics, have presented Church doctrine on abortion in a false and tendentious way.”
Given the relatively long tradition of labeling the Democratic Party as the party of death by the gotha of American Catholicism, it is hardly surprising that the recent video clip received enthusiastic support from Joseph Strickland, a bishop from Tyler, Texas. Strickland not only endorsed the message but exhorted his flock to listen to this “wise and faithful priest.” It might also come as no surprise that according to one witness in Pennsylvania, some priests were “openly suggesting that politicians who support abortion rights should be denied Communion.”
This is akin to what the Italian Catholic Church told its flock in the postwar period. This is what the Polish Church has been telling its flock since the collapse of the communist regime. The result: In 2019, a mere 20% of the Polish population expressed trust in the country’s Catholic Church.
Blood on Their Hands
Things are likely to move in the same direction in the United States. The headline of a recent article in National Catholic Reporter minced no words: Catholics, the article charged, “need to confess their complicity in the failed coup.” The author claims that, given the five casualties caused by the assault on the Capitol, “Catholic apologists for Trump have blood on their hands.” The tacit or open support of parts of the American Catholic Church’s clergy and affiliated lay organizations, such as Catholics for Trump, CatholicVote.org and LifeSiteNews, for a president who represents the very antithesis of Gospel teaching is bound to have a significant fallout, given the assault on the nation’s cradle of democracy.
This comes at a time when the Catholic Church is under tremendous pressure given the growing number of revelations of widespread sexual abuse, more often than not hushed up by the Church hierarchy. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the Catholic Church spent more than $5 million on lobbying to prevent victims of sexual abuse from getting meaningful compensation.
Ever since the creation of the United States, Catholics have been under a cloud of suspicion. It took more than a century to alleviate these suspicions and allow Catholics to be accepted as equal members of the nation. By openly supporting a president who represents the very antithesis of Christ’s teaching, parts of the American Catholic Church have managed to erase much of the progress the American Catholic Church has managed to accomplish over the past several decades. Consumed by one issue, the question of abortion, they condoned Trump’s behavior by looking the other way on questions of racism, white supremacy, refugees and Black Lives Matter.
On the contrary, radical right-wing influencers, such as Michelle Malkin (who once said that what was at the heart of her “outspokenness” was her Catholic faith), characterized Black Lives Matter protesters as “vigilante terrorists.” A few weeks before the assault on the Capitol, Malkin ridiculed the idea that Trump supporters might be “the real threat to civil order” or that the “populist movement to ‘stop the steal’ of election 2020 is rooted in hate.”
In the wake of the assault on the Capitol, it has become clear that the American Catholic Church’s narrow focus on the question of abortion is a dead end with serious consequences. It is time to shift the focus to pressing issues like social justice, affordable health care for all, human dignity independent of skin color, gender and sexual orientation, and, last but not least, a fundamental break with the Trump administration’s approach to the global climate crisis. In other words, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ rather than kowtowing to the likes of Donald Trump and many within the Republican Party who care only about themselves.
A recent article in the Chicago Tribune suggests that this is going to be an uphill battle. When a Catholic priest in Chicago raised uncomfortable questions about the church’s complicity with the Trump administration and the assault on Congress, a significant number of his congregation walked out, clearly unprepared to confront reality. This suggests that the rift in American society extends deep into the country’s Catholic community. This is hardly surprising, giving the polarizing figure of Pope Francis. What many of his detractors in the Catholic Church have objected to is that his “theology stems from reality: from the reality of injustice, poverty and the destruction of nature.”
As it happens, the American Catholic Church is a hotspot of opposition to Pope Francis. This might, in part at least, explain the support of many American Catholics for Donald Trump and the vitriol parts of the Catholic community have directed at Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. Hence the irony that the country’s second Catholic taking over the Oval Office since John F. Kennedy is anathema to so many American Catholics.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.