Catholic bishops in the United States have had little to say about the behavior and rhetoric of Donald Trump throughout the presidential campaign, even while speaking out on issues such as marijuana legalization and the “cafeteria” Catholicism of Tim Kaine, the Democratic nominee for vice president.
As Election Day nears, and the list of Trump’s unprecedented breaches of civility grows, some observers are disturbed by the bishops’ reluctance to invoke their moral authority.
“The silence,” said the Rev. James Bretzke, a theologian at Boston College and a Jesuit priest, “is deafening.”
In recent weeks, 11 women have accused Trump of past sexual misconduct, following the emergence of a 2005 video showing him bragging about sexual assault. He asserted, without proof, that voter fraud is widespread and involves illegal immigrants and inner-city residents — largely people of color. He refused to say he would accept the election results.
Amid all of this, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, finally felt moved to speak out. But rather than take Trump to task, he obliquely scolded Hillary Clinton.
The Democratic nominee’s campaign chairman was revealed in e-mails from 2012 to have discussed with a left-wing activist the possibility of fomenting a “Catholic Spring,” or democratic uprising within the Catholic Church.
“There have been recent reports that some may have sought to interfere in the internal life of the church for short-term political gain,” Kurtz, the archbishop of Louisville, said in a video released last week. “If true, this is troubling both for the well-being of faith communities and the good of our country.”
He mentioned Trump’s boasts about assault only in passing: “Too much of our current political discourse has demeaned women and marginalized people of faith.”
Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for the liberal National Catholic Reporter, wrote in a column last week that the “Catholic Spring” discussion reflected “the kind of conversations hundreds of thousands of Catholics have all the time.”
Trump’s offenses were not enough to get him disinvited to the Alfred E. Smith dinner last week, an annual white-tie event hosted by the Archdiocese of New York in which, every four years, the presidential candidates are invited to share jokes to raise money for charity. True to form, Trump breached decorum, calling Clinton “corrupt” and joking that she “hates Catholics,” provoking boos.
Asked about this on NBC’s “Today” show the next day, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, granted that “the audience, more or less accurately, I think, reflects the sentiments that are going on,” but praised both candidates for being civil through the rest of the evening.
The US bishops do not endorse candidates. Tax-exempt churches are prohibited from doing so, and the bishops don’t want to alienate people in the pews, who are divided along partisan lines.
Catholic theology also understands the clergy’s proper role in elections as an indirect influencer, said Chad C. Pecknold, a theologian at The Catholic University of America. Bishops and priests are teachers of conscience. They don’t tell people whom to vote for, but rather how to use their God-given free will and well-formed conscience for the common good.
Bishop Robert W. McElroy of the Diocese of San Diego said in an interview: “To endorse, or seem to endorse, a particular candidate is really intruding on what is the legitimate moral autonomy of Catholic lay men and lay women in their roles as citizens and believers.”
Every election cycle, the bishops issue a document on “faithful citizenship,” offering voters general guidance on principles of Catholic teaching and their intersection with public policy. Dozens of prelates have in recent elections tiptoed to the brink of endorsement, warning that Catholic voters should never support politicians who favor abortion rights (that includes most Democrats).
Some, including the bishops of Kansas, have done so again this year. But Pope Francis has decried the culture wars and has emphasized a broader array of issues than his immediate predecessors, including global warming and the plight of displaced people.
Bishop Peter Anthony Libasci of the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., said in an interview that he is careful not to frame voting in simplistic terms.
“We can never be a one-issue voter,” he said. “We have to look at the common good as broadly as possible.”
Some bishops this year have spoken sympathetically about the dilemma facing those Catholic faithful who see both major party candidates as deeply flawed.
“The best voter guide for Catholic citizens is to think of themselves, when in the voting booth, as having Jesus by their side,” McElroy said, echoing common advice from prelates. “Who would he be telling me to vote for?”
Many of his brethren are, however, wary of doing anything to help Clinton.
The Democratic nominee not only supports President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which many bishops say tramples on religious liberty by failing to provide a sufficient faith-based exemption for employer coverage of birth control. Clinton also supports gay marriage and transgender rights. And she celebrates Planned Parenthood and wants to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which bars the federal Medicaid program from paying for abortion.
When Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia denounced Trump last month as “a belligerent demagogue with an impulse-control problem,” he cast Clinton as equally reprehensible, “a criminal liar, uniquely rich in stale ideas and bad priorities.”
Kurtz, after Trump promised a “complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the country in December 2015, called on Americans to “resist the hatred and suspicion that leads to policies of discrimination,” and to “employ immigration laws that are humane and keep us safe, but should never target specific classes of persons based on religion.”
Although the bishops have continued their steadfast advocacy for immigrants, Kurtz has issued nothing close to that kind of rebuke of Trump since, even after the release of the 2005 video, which showed Trump bragging about sexual assault in obscene terms.
“To me it is certainly disturbing that no bishop has seen fit to come forward and say that this kind of behavior is always morally wrong or problematic,” Bretzke said.
The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, said if Kurtz “tried to say anything critical of Trump, he’d get plastered by the pro-life organizations and the bishops who support those organizations.”
The campaign has almost surely pained Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston. He is a fluent Spanish speaker who spent his early career working closely with Hispanic immigrants in Washington, D.C. He and other bishops said a Mass in 2014 on the Arizona-Mexico border, calling for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and for an end to the “inhumane deportation and detention system” that often tears families apart.
But O’Malley is also a passionate opponent of abortion and former chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities. Weeks before the 2008 election, he stood at a rally for “Respect Life” month on the Boston Common and lavishly praised Sarah Palin, then the Republican nominee for vice president, for carrying to term a son with Down syndrome.
The cardinal, who convened a gathering of faith leaders to rally opposition to a state referendum that would legalize recreational use of marijuana, has declined numerous requests from the Globe for an interview about the presidential campaign.
O’Malley’s spokesman, Terrence Donilon, said the cardinal had spent a lifetime speaking against violence, hatred, racism, sexual assault, the mistreatment of immigrants, and other issues concerning violations of human dignity, and that he had built interfaith relationships and advocated for the poor.
“At this time of greatly elevated attention to our country’s political activity,” he said, “Cardinal O’Malley encourages each person to reflect on the opportunities to promote greater reconciliation and unity, and to pray for our country.”
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.