[Editors note: This is part one of Crux national correspondent Christopher White’s look back at the U.S. Church in 2017. In part two tomorrow, he examines the often overshadowed pastoral developments of Church life during the last 12 months.]
NEW YORK — When Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, offered a prayer at the inauguration of President Donald Trump last January, he stressed that his role at the event was not political, but rather, pastoral.
“Many people may have reservations of the president-elect and I certainly do, as with any incoming president,” Dolan told reporters before the inauguration. “But in the great American tradition, we look at the time of an incoming president as a time of hope … a way to give a man a chance and try to fulfill some of the promises he made.”
While the campaign promises made by candidate Trump were a source of great joy to the U.S. Catholic bishops during the first few weeks of his presidency, the rest of 2017 — with a few notable exceptions — would be marked by serious tensions between the administration and the hierarchy of the U.S. Church.
“Life is winning in America”
Within two weeks of taking office, Trump took executive action and reinstated the Mexico City Policy, a move that banned giving U.S. tax dollars to groups who perform or support abortion overseas. The day after the Mexico City Policy was reinstated, the House of Representatives punctuated that decision by passing legislation known as the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, which aimed to make the Hyde Amendment permanent.
The Hyde Amendment prohibits tax dollars from paying for abortion except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother, and has been a traditional part of the annual budget approval process for over forty years.
In a historic first, Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the rally prior to the annual March for Life, which is timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, which established a legal right to abortion in the United States. Pence, who was sent by the president, boasted of the administration’s recent pro-life victories and announced, “life is winning in America, and today is a celebration of that progress.”
Three months later, the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the United States Supreme Court, was widely viewed as the president making good on his campaign promise to appoint a “pro-life justice” in the mold of the late Antonin Scalia, with the hope of eventually overturning the court’s 1973 decision in Roe.
“A sense of indifference and cruelty”
On the same day that nearly half a million individuals gathered in Washington, D.C. for the March for Life, the Trump administration issued the first version of its travel ban which targeted individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries, barring their admission into the United States — and the U.S. Catholic bishops fired back with the first of many statements on the matter.
“We strongly disagree with the Executive Order’s halting refugee admissions. We believe that now more than ever, welcoming newcomers and refugees is an act of love and hope,” they wrote. “Given this extraordinary level of suffering, the U.S. Catholic Bishops will redouble their support for, and efforts to protect, all who flee persecution and violence, as just one part of the perennial and global work of the Church in this area of concern.”
If tensions over religious liberty had defined the relationship between the U.S. bishops and the Obama administration, by the end of January it was evident that immigration would be the defining issue of marked differences between the Trump administration and the Catholic Church.
At the World Meeting for Popular Movements in Modesto, California, in February, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles denounced “the sense of indifference and cruelty that seems to be coming out of this new administration in Washington.”
Gomez, who was born in Mexico but is a naturalized U.S. citizen, spoke about the concerns of the many immigrants who make up his archdiocese and their fears of deportation in light of the Trump presidency.
“They are playing with people’s emotions and toying with people’s lives and futures, and that’s not right,” Gomez said of the administration.
At that same meeting, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego made headlines when he said “President Trump was the candidate of disruption,” and then went on to call on those in attendance to become both “disruptors” and “rebuilders of solidarity.”
In March, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, also received national attention when he accompanied an undocumented grandfather of four to his deportation hearing. He used the occasion to call for comprehensive immigration reform, arguing that “the enforcement of the broken immigration system is capricious and unjust.”
Contraception coverage and a “common sense” compromise
In May, President Trump held a White House Rose Garden ceremony where he signed an executive order on religious freedom meant to end the standoff between the government and religious groups over the Obama Administration’s HHS contraception mandate.
“We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore,” said the president as he spotlighted the Little Sisters of the Poor who had become the public face of the battle over religious liberty after their case came before the Supreme Court over the HHS mandate.
Yet following the public ceremony, the U.S. bishops waited for five months — with visible annoyance — for the executive order to result in a new rule regarding the mandate.
In October — after months of promises and continued pressure from religious liberty advocacy groups — the Trump administration announced a new rule that ended the requirement for employers to provide birth control coverage in their health insurance plans if it violated “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
While the new rule is now facing challenges in court, the U.S. bishops praised the move as “good news for all Americans” and “a return to common sense, long-standing federal practice, and peaceful coexistence between church and state.”
DACA and the need for a “prophetic witness”
Despite the flurry of events that have engaged the U.S. bishops over the past year — including battles over tax reform, the federal budget, and the aforementioned efforts over life and religious liberty, the defining issue of the past year comes down to one four letter word, or — more precisely — an acronym: DACA.
In September, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration would move to end the DACA program, which protects qualified immigrants who arrived in the country as minors from deportation. In an interview with Crux on the day of the decision, Dolan said the bishops felt the need “to be prophetic on this issue,” and over the past four months there’s been no shortage of statements and press conferences to make it abundantly clear that the bishops are a united front on this matter.
When former White House senior strategist Steve Bannon attempted to caricature the bishops’ support for immigrants and the DACA program as one of self-interest, the head communications officer for the USCCB fired back in a public statement labeling the remarks as “outrageous and insulting.”
At the annual fall gathering of the U.S. bishops in Baltimore this past November, immigration — and the issue of DACA, specifically — took center stage. Following the three-day meeting, USCCB president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo released a Thanksgiving message where he offered a particular plea for the protection of migrants and refugee families.
While over fifteen percent of the statements released by the USCCB over the past year have related to the issue of immigration, DACA remains the most pressing issue for the U.S. bishops as it enters into 2018.
In that same Thanksgiving statement, DiNardo summarized the fall meeting of the U.S. bishops by noting “My brothers expressed a shared and ever-greater sense of alarm-and urgency to act-in the face of policies that seemed unthinkable only a short time ago.”
As 2017 comes to a close, only one conclusion seems clear: those “unthinkable” policies will remain a source of frustration and friction for the foreseeable future.