- In 2016, my deacon warned that any Catholic who voted Democrat risked their soul’s eternal damnation because of the party’s views on abortion.
- Official Catholic guidance strongly warns against supporting abortion rights, causing many Catholics to vote single-issue.
- Trump is relying on single-issue Catholic voters for his reelection — but confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before the election could free Catholic voters to not vote single-issue.
- Clerics are already threatening damnation for those who vote for Biden. The Church needs to decide its stance on this issue once and for all.
- James B. Foley is a former US diplomat who served as Ambassador to Haiti and to Croatia.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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I got the shock of my life where I least expected it: Mass. One Sunday in October 2016 at my parish in Northern Virginia, our deacon essentially endorsed Donald Trump for president. Because of Hillary Clinton’s views on abortion, he starkly warned us that any Catholic who voted for the Democratic candidate risked his or her soul’s eternal damnation.
As a matter of doctrine, Catholics are clearly forbidden from carrying out abortions. But for a priest or deacon to claim that personal salvation is at stake in a matter not of personal morals but public policy, and to deliver this in the form of a partisan threat from the pulpit, struck me as not only offensive but utterly baseless.
It therefore came as a surprise to learn that our deacon had actually acted on a narrow but authentic interpretation of official guidance produced by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops for the 2016 election, which remains in effect for this election year. Titled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the guide is a socially conscious manifesto on everything from economics to the environment, foreign policy to immigration. The document clearly establishes a hierarchy of issues and indeed accords the highest priority to abortion.
Although there is wiggle room in the language, some Catholic voters could plausibly see the emphasis on opposing abortion as a direct instruction to vote Republican for president. Such guidance may not affect how most US Catholics actually vote, but the Church’s influence is great enough to have likely made it decisive in closely contested states in 2016. For this reason, the Catholic Church bears direct responsibility for making Donald Trump president.
Now with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Trump is plainly counting on single-issue Catholic voters to help deliver him victory in 2020. In the little time remaining before the election, the Church should reflect urgently on how to avoid complicity with a potential outcome so fraught with consequences for American democracy.
The cost of single-issue voting
To begin with, the Catholic Church needs to come to terms with the inherently corrupting nature of single-issue voting, which gives a blank check to politicians to do whatever they want on every other issue.
In the case of someone as transactional as Donald Trump, voting based on a single issue is a devil’s bargain because with him comes so much else — the trampling of democratic norms and the unrelenting lies, insults, racism and misogyny. In policy terms, the bargain is even more consequential. As a former national security official, I am most alarmed by his unexplained subservience to Vladimir Putin and his disdain for the alliances that have protected us for 75 years. For others, it is his disregard for the environment and launching of a new nuclear arms race. But Trump understands with perfect cynicism that his unconditional supporters have green-lit anything and everything. His long ago boast that he could get away with shooting someone in broad daylight seems less hyperbolic by the day.
Single-issue voters, however, cannot complain. Having made their bargain with the president, they are complicit in whatever he does. For them, no price is apparently too high to pay for the appointment of pro-life judges and the opportunity to finally bury Roe v Wade.
And that price continues to rise. This is not 2016, when the damage Trump could do was still theoretical. His naked appeal to racial prejudice and open threat to subvert the results of the election risk plunging the country into turmoil. Even such a horrifying prospect is acceptable to some pro-life Catholics, but can the Catholic Church itself really believe pro-life judges are worth the potential cost to social peace and the stability of our democracy?
I do not believe that most single-issue Catholics are that cynical. They are sincerely focused on the prize, not the price, and are oblivious to the moral recklessness of their support for Trump.
I am reminded of a car with two bumper stickers that I spotted earlier this year in the parking lot after Mass. One was pro-life; the other expressed solidarity with endangered Christians in the Middle East. The car owner would likely have voted for the pro-life candidate in 2000 — George W. Bush — who made the calamitous decision to invade Iraq. They would have inescapably owned the consequences of that vote, which included untold human suffering across the Middle East — and the tragic fate of Christian minorities in particular.
Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court could boomerang on Trump.
There is a sense in which the elevation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court could potentially emancipate pro-life Catholics from the single-issue straitjacket. In his anxiety to rush her onto the Court to secure a commanding majority that might favor him in an election dispute, the president has imprudently surrendered leverage over pro-life voters.
They are now in a position similar to Filipinos in the 1986 presidential election who received financial handouts from President Ferdinand Marcos. As a junior diplomat in Manila, I witnessed how the Catholic Church played a crucial role in the restoration of democracy, and part of that was advising poor Filipinos that they could accept such bribes in good conscience without being obligated to vote for the dictator.
Donald Trump surely looks upon his judicial appointments as bribes to pro-life Catholics, but now that a 6-3 Supreme Court conservative majority is assured, Roe v Wade’s days are numbered and the battleground will shift to the states. This could be a historic moment when single-issue Catholics feel enabled to take a broader view of all that is at stake in this presidential election, and perhaps spare the nation more collateral damage from their single-minded pursuit of a cause deemed transcendent.
But this does not absolve the institutional Church of its own responsibility; a clarification from Rome in some form is needed, as clerics have already begun to threaten damnation for Catholics who vote for former Vice President Biden. This kind of warning is either validly authoritative or it is not. If the Church believes they are right, it ought to say so explicitly, and not shrink from invoking the threat of excommunication before Catholics enter the voting booth. If these clerics are wrong and simply freelancing, the Church should repudiate them and clear Catholics to vote their consciences.
James B. Foley is a former US diplomat who served as Ambassador to Haiti and to Croatia.