The 2016 presidential primaries featured an unprecedented number of Catholic candidates: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, and Martin O’Malley. Some speculated that this would be “the most Catholic presidential election ever.”
Pope Francis’ trip to the United States was also seen as a potential game changer for American politics by a number of commentators. Francis challenged both the political left and right, Republicans and Democrats to overturn the throwaway culture and embrace an approach to politics that uplifted the poor, the vulnerable, and the excluded.
By all accounts, the pope’s trip was a smash hit with the public.
We seem to have entered a new era of Catholic participation in American politics. Gone are the days of the widespread rank bigotry faced by Catholic Al Smith in the 1928 election. Catholic candidates did not have to reassure the public that their faith would not interfere with their constitutional responsibilities, as President Kennedy was forced to do in 1960.
In Time, Christopher Hale speculated that following the way of Pope Francis might not just be “a ticket to heaven but maybe to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, too.”
But as we turn toward the general election, any talk of “the most Catholic presidential election ever” seems to have died down.
Donald Trump — who clashed with the pope over his border wall-building scheme, has never asked God for forgiveness, and who seems theologically limited, at least on the significance of eating his “little cracker” at church — has vanquished his Republican opponents.
Meanwhile in the Democratic primary, O’Malley’s campaign never gained any traction, while Bernie Sanders, who has quoted Pope Francis again and again on economic justice, presumably cannot catch frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
Trump and Clinton are set to square off in the general election with the highest set of unfavorability ratings in the history of presidential election polling. Many Catholics, who often mirror the public in their political sentiments, are displeased with their choices.
This is particularly true of those Catholics who reject the bifurcation of the Church into pro-life and pro-social justice camps, instead rejecting the radical individualism and libertarianism of both contemporary liberalism and conservatism. For such Catholics, it would be fair to say that the most common feeling may be despair.
Hillary Clinton is seen by many as a politician’s politician at a time when the system is proudly dysfunctional and in need of reform. Her incrementalist approach seems inadequate for overturning the throwaway culture.
Her position on the death penalty not only breaks with trends in Catholic teaching; for many, it seems to reveal a lack of sincerity and authenticity on Clinton’s part, a willingness to abandon principles to maximize electoral prospects.
Finally, the increasingly absolutist position of leading Democrats on abortion is a major obstacles to consolidating the votes of devout Catholics.
Clinton, who once called abortion sad and tragic and has indicated support for some restrictions, has edged closer to a more absolutist position, even attacking Sanders on abortion for being insufficiently pro-choice despite his 100 percent pro-choice voting record, rather than even expressing a desire to seek common ground and reduce the abortion rate.
Trump, meanwhile, is a menace to the body politic—a disease eating away at cherished social norms and threatening our democratic system with his authoritarian impulses and nihilistic indifference to factual reality.
Some opponents of abortion have already backed him, but many pro-lifers doubt his sincerity on the issue and are troubled by his inconsistent commitment to life outside the womb.
Trump’s demonization of Muslims, Mexicans, and others has fostered and empowered bigotry that the Church considers both intrinsically and gravely evil. His treatment of women has highlighted his total lack of character and integrity. His praise of dictators is troubling, both in terms of his view of international relations and the importance he likely places on democracy and constitutionalism here at home.
While he is actually less plutocratic than many of his Republican colleagues, his economic plans would exacerbate the economic injustice denounced by the pope. Ultimately, no one knows if he holds a single belief other than the narcissistic delusions he entertains about his own greatness.
It is not surprising, then, that many Catholics are saying “never Trump.” But many are also questioning whether they can vote for Hillary Clinton. Ultimately, each American Catholic must use his or her own judgement and prudence to discern how they should vote.
Single-issue voters may hope against hope that Trump will deliver them the Supreme Court justices they desire to overturn Roe v. Wade. Others will set aside any problems with Hillary Clinton and vote for the candidate who is clearly more competent and whose positions they believe more closely reflects Church teaching on many issues, including: economic justice, climate change, reforming the political system, healthcare, immigration reform, paid leave, voting rights, and human rights.
Others will refuse to vote for either.
Ultimately, however, voting in a presidential election is not an expression of one’s purity or self-professed “prophetic” politics. It is a civic responsibility aimed at promoting the common good.
In virtually every election, orthodox Catholics are left choosing between candidates they find deeply flawed. In the end, if one candidate is a far greater threat to the common good, there is a responsibility to vote for the other candidate, however unenthusiastic one might be. This will be the case for many American Catholics this year.
So much for the most Catholic presidential election ever.
Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial, a Ph.D. candidate in politics at The Catholic University of America, and a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.