It takes a special talent to get a roomful of rich Catholics to boo a Republican candidate, but Donald Trump has that gift. Trump’s disastrous appearance at the Al Smith Dinner, a forced march for politicians disguised as a fundraiser for Catholic Charities, was just one more sign of the candidate’s uncanny ability to alienate people inclined to support him.
But while most of the focus was on Trump’s inability to tell a joke without it come across as nuclear-tipped, the more interesting story is how low-profile the Catholic bishops have been in this presidential campaign. Cardinal Timothy Dolan was the ringmaster for the Al Smith dinner, seated between Trump and Hillary Clinton. But Dolan’s appearance was one of the few that the Catholic bishops have put in during the campaign.
Compare that to past elections. In 2004, Catholic bishops all but took to the stump for George W. Bush. Dolan gave a convocation at the Republican convention in 2012, and, almost as an afterthought, showed up at the Democratic convention just to prove his bipartisanship. (No one was fooled.)
This time around, the bishops have been a lot less political. Part of it has to do with Trump himself. After all, he called the pope “disgraceful” when Francis said that Trump’s wall with Mexico was “not Christian.” Even Archbishop Charles Chaput, who is so far to the right that he thinks the pope is insufficiently Catholic, has branded Trump ““a vulgar, boorish lout and disrespecter of women with a serious impulse control problem.” (He’s no fan of Clinton either, calling her a “scheming, robotic liar.”)
But the real motivation for the bishop’s silence may be to stay on the right side of the Vatican. Pope Francis made comments earlier this month that were studiously non-partisan: “The people are sovereign. I will only say: Study the proposals well, pray and choose in conscience.” No comments about abortion or marriage equality or any other hot button issues.
Moreover, the pope’s willingness to go after Trump about the wall sent a clear signal. Francis is emphasizing social justice issues, like immigration and poverty, which have taken a back burner to the culture war issues that the bishops have been pushing for decades. He’s also sent a clear message about how he views political involvement with his promotions: as archbishop of Philadelphia, Chaput holds a position that is traditionally elevated to cardinal, but Francis keeps passing him over.
Of course, Catholic voters are different from the bishops. Like pretty much every other voting bloc, Trump promises to lose the Catholic vote in record numbers. If that turns out to be the case on Election Day, even the bishops may have to pay attention.