Hours before the presidential debate began in Sunday, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani invoked St Augustine of Hippo on a Sunday morning political news show to defend the man he was supporting for president.
“Ever read ‘The Confessions’ of St Augustine?” Giuliani asked John Dickerson, the host of “Face the Nation,” referring to the autobiographical book about St Augustine’s sinful past and his subsequent conversion. “Men can change, people can change.”
Hours later, Donald Trump, the embattled Republican presidential nominee he was defending, was defiant in St Louis during the second of three presidential debates against Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
Trump spent the weekend dealing with public backlash, including watching members of his own party withdraw endorsements for his presidency following the release of various video and audio recordings where he is heard making lewd comments about women.
In one of the recordings, Trump, who had been married for months to his third wife at the time of the incident, speaks of his intention to have sex with a different married woman.
Giuliani, who said that as a Catholic he understood contrition and the resolve to do better after a person has done something wrong, seemed like the lone political voice defending Trump.
Republican House Speaker Paul D Ryan, a Catholic, said he was “sickened” by Trump’s comments and withdrew his invitation from their first event together in Wisconsin and said a day after the debate that he “won’t defend” his party’s candidate.
The Boston-based group Catholic Democrats condemned Trump’s comments in a press release last week and called on members of his Catholic advisory group to resign.
“As Catholics, we have a special obligation to make our voices heard when we see any individual use a position of power to sexually exploit another,” said Steve Kruger, the group’s president.
In response, two members of the advisory group, Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, and Janet Morana, co-founder of the Silent No More Campaign, issued a statement saying:
“Aside from saying ‘no, and hell no,’ we want to issue a call of our own. The members of Catholic Democrats should resign,” they said, for supporting the Democratic platform, “which undermines foundational aspects of church teaching.”
“We do not condone lewd words or actions in anyone’s personal life, or any mistreatment of women,” their statement said. “It is for that very reason that we are even more concerned that the Democratic Party institutionalises morally offensive behaviour, including abortion, homosexual activity, and the depraved view of human sexuality that is put forward by Planned Parenthood.”
Morana told Catholic News Service that not only was she “not quitting” the advisory group but she planned to “work harder than before” to see Trump elected, stressing that his “locker room banter” was not as harmful as Clinton’s abortion stance.
She also called on people to forgive Trump, emphasising that it is still the Year of Mercy and that he has apologised for his statements.
Morana emphasised that she was speaking only as a Catholic woman in leadership and was not representing the Silent No More Campaign.
Others also said they felt they had no other option but to stick with Trump.
“I think his comments are utterly disgusting, but I have no other choice than to vote for him,” said Gail Buckley, who attended a meeting of the Catholic Leadership Conference in Denver in early October, where Trump sent a letter to Catholics gathered there saying: “I will be there for you. I will stand with you. I will fight for you” on pro-life and other issues.
Buckley, who is president of the leadership conference as well as president and founder of Catholic Scripture Study International, said she asked Clinton to also address the group, but her campaign declined the invitation.
Buckley said she does not trust Clinton and “would never support a candidate who promotes abortion and same-sex marriage and threatens my religious liberty.”
In the debate, which was sprinkled with assaults from both sides, Trump reached out to those like Buckley and Cella, saying: “I am looking to appoint judges very much in the mould of Justice Scalia,” when the candidates were asked about their plans for nominating a Supreme Court justice to replace the conservative Catholic Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February.
It is a task that the next president will have to undertake and one that is high in the mind of many voters.
Clinton answered: “I want a Supreme Court that will stick with Roe v Wade and a woman’s right to choose and I want a Supreme Court that will stick with marriage equality.”
But even before the debate and the airing of the video and audio, Trump seemed to be struggling with Catholics for their vote, according to a PRRI poll released in late August.
The poll showed him down 23 points, 55-32, against Clinton.
The letter Trump sent out to Catholic Leadership Conference members gathered in Denver in early October seemed “like a desperate Hail Mary pass,” said John Gehring, Catholic programme director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington.
“Trump is struggling with Catholic voters for a reason: Anti-immigrant nativism, crude sexism and making an idol of wealth are not Gospel values,” Gehring said to CNS in an email interview. “Pope Francis reminds us that building a culture of life isn’t about a single issue and that everything is connected. Catholics also want to hear about creating an economy of inclusion, dignity for refugees and addressing the way climate change disproportionately hurts the poor. These are central life issues.”
CatholicVote.org said a day before the debate that even though it didn’t endorse Trump, it defended a lot of his positions. In a statement on its website, it said that “in the recording, he brags about sexually assaulting women. Christians should not waste their breath defending them. The mere fact that this conversation is occurring in the context of a presidential campaign impoverishes us all.”