In normal times, “US Bishops ask President for Catholic school relief” would not be much of a headline. But these are times of President Donald Trump, with whom everything is controversial, and of Covid-19, in which everything is urgent. So there was a furore over just such a story in April, which spilled into May.
Senior leaders in the US Catholic hierarchy including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, José Gomez of Los Angeles (the USCCB president) and Boston’s cardinal-archbishop, Sean O’Malley OFM Cap, took part in a conference call with Trump where the needs, concerns and future of Catholic schools were discussed with regard to the pandemic.
Particularly troubling was the question of whether parents would be able to meet tuition needs in the coming year. After the call Cardinal Dolan praised the president for his willingness to listen and help.
On this occasion, Dolan’s jovial mien failed to charm. An open letter signed by more than a thousand Catholics – many of them social justice advocates – strongly criticised Cardinal Dolan. “Your recent phone call with President Trump and appearance on Fox News,” read the letter from the group called Faith in Public Life Action, “sends a message that Catholic leaders have aligned themselves with a president who tears apart immigrant families, denies climate change, stokes racial division and supports economic policies that hurt the poor.”
Is that fair? Certainly, Trump saw this as an electoral opportunity. The president would love to have the bishops’ endorsement, and even used the call to tout his efforts to secure non-profit organisations’ right to endorse candidates without jeopardising their tax-exempt status. The letter-writers urged the bishops to “refrain from giving even the appearance that bishops have their hands on the scales in this election”. But arguably, the bishops did precisely that in telling Trump: “[There is] no institution in our country that has been more successful than Catholic schools in moving people from poverty to the middle class.”
The letter continued: “This president’s extreme cruelty and basic lack of respect for human dignity must be challenged. When religious leaders put access to power before principles, they risk losing the moral clarity needed to ensure politics is about the pursuit of the common good.”
One may agree with both of those statements, and yet remain unconvinced they accurately describe what the bishops had done.
The editor-in-chief of the Jesuits’ America magazine, Fr Matt Malone SJ, rightly pointed out that, politically, it was a no-brainer: “[T]hey tried to get something rather than settle for nothing,” and that was, for once, a smart political play.
“The bishops could have followed [Trump’s] lead and talked more about abortion, where Mr Trump agrees with them, even if he once did not,” Fr Malone wrote. “They could have talked about immigration, where Mr Trump strongly disagrees with them and always will. Or,” he concluded, “they could have talked about aid to Catholic education, where he is inclined to agree with them and might be willing to do something.”
Fr Malone quoted Max Weber: “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” One thinks, however, of another maxim attributed to a famous German, this one regarding laws and sausages and how it is better for those who like them to avoid the sight of their making. Bismarck (if he did say it) was right.
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