Comment by Andrew Brown
Underneath the workings of the coronavirus, all the old religious hatreds simmer on. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the US Catholic church in an election year. One faction among the bishops supports Donald Trump almost as fervently as white Evangelicals do; the other regards him as an enemy of Christianity.
Catholic laypeople are split almost evenly, according to the independent think tank Pew Research, and this split largely mirrors racial divisions. White Catholics vote for Trump; Hispanics vote against him.
There’s no doubt that Pope Francis is on the anti-Trump side. He is a globalist, an environmentalist, and a champion of refugees. This puts him far to the left of the Republican party but it doesn’t make him a Democrat ,because his views on sexual morality are completely unacceptable to the American left. But it does mean that American right-wingers have made an alliance of convenience with Catholic reactionaries against him.
A central figure in this alliance was Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, (pictured) once the Vatican’s ambassador to Washington. Two years ago he demanded publicly that Francis should resign, claiming that, before he became Pope, he had protected Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was later unmasked as a sexual predator. Pope Francis has vehemently denied this.
The charges were murky and ultimately unconvincing. Vigano vanished from public view. Now he has resurfaced with an interview for a Portuguese website, in which he denounced the whole of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 as a plot between “Modernists” and Freemasons. The church since the council has, he says, become “a deformed and monstrous creature that does not come from God”. It is given over to “issues that the church has always condemned, such as relativism and religious indifference, false ecumenism, Malthusian ecologism, homo-heresy and immigration”.
The alliance against the Pope will survive such outbursts. It is pinned together by the issue of abortion. For some Catholics, as for most white evangelicals, this is the single, overriding political question. For most, it is not. A 2016 poll found that only 36% of likely Catholic voters wanted abortion banned. But this can only increase the determination of the conservative hierarchy.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, was once asked by a journalist whether “the perception of being in bed with the Republicans, or the political right, is the PR price that has to be paid for taking a strong stance on abortion?” and replied: “Yes, that’s exactly right.”
President Trump has courted them assiduously. On two consecutive weekends he called Cardinal Dolan and others in the middle of the coronavirus crisis. A recording of the most recent, on 26 April, was leaked to the online site Crux, from which we learn that the Mr Trump told them that he was “the best president in the history of the Catholic Church”.
His leverage is not just the promise to restrict access to abortion. He is also offering support for Catholic schools. This is desperately needed. The church in the US, although it still has 50 million members, has lost 13 million in the past decades. More than six people leave it for every two who convert. The hierarchy may urge the faithful to vote for Trump but increasingly they are voting with their feet.
Austen Ivereigh, liberal biographer of Pope Francis
Professor Stephen Bullivant, St Mary’s University, Twickenham