For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
“And so it is with humility ... determination ... and boundless confidence in America's promise … that I accept your nomination for President of the United States!”
With those words, Hillary Clinton accepted the nomination of the Democrats tonight and became the first woman to be nominated for president by a major political party. Her forty-minute speech officially kicked off what will now be a grueling and likely bitterly fought general election campaign with Donald Trump, who became the Republican nominee last week in Cleveland.
Clinton’s speech was intended to reintroduce her to the American people, make the case for trusting her with the safety and well-being of the country and convince America that Trump is fundamentally unfit to be commander-in-chief.
Whether she succeeded will be known in part over the next few days as polls track a possible post-convention bounce.
Based on her speech and the barrage of other speeches here in Philadelphia, the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party will work to disqualify Trump as a legitimate candidate and too unqualified and reckless to have his finger on the nuclear button or to shepherd the American economy. They will portray him as corrupt and homophobic, Islamophobic and racist, and accuse him of being a threat to all women and the LGBT community, and they will continue to push a culture war that stresses abortion and the expansion of LGBT rights.
At the same time, Clinton sought to co-opt many of the policy wishes of the Bernie Sanders campaign while trying to project a strong image as a faith-filled potential commander-in-chief willing to wage war. It was a tapestry of issues both diverse and calculated—more reminiscent of a State of the Union address than a convention speech intended to rally her followers.
The general election, of course, brings with it a vast expansion of the electorate beyond the primary contests made up of party faithful, and the Clintons seem to be banking on reconstructing the Obama coalition that won the last two elections.
Clinton herself has an extremely high unfavorability level with voters, and her campaign is handicapped additionally by representing the status quo at a time when two massive movements for change—exemplified by the Trump and Sanders campaigns—collected millions of votes. But her opponent also has low marks with voters, and so far a ceiling in the polls.
Where does all of this leave Catholics?
In the extensive polling that will now be taking place, some of it will focus on Catholic, Evangelical, and faith-based voters. Look for the next week to gauge the shifting levels of support, in particular the regular churchgoing Catholics who have so far backed Clinton by a majority of 57%. If that begins to change, it could mark a significant movement toward Trump, who did receive a hefty bump from his own convention.
Catholic voters, though, seem to be forgotten by one party and deliberately divided by the other. Donald Trump never mentioned Catholics in his acceptance speech in Cleveland, and Clinton's pick of a pro-abortion Catholic, Sen. Tim Kaine, as her running mate underscored the fracture that exists in the Catholic electorate.
The Trump campaign seems to be assuming that pro-life Catholics, faced with the prospect of a Clinton presidency, can be counted on to support his presidential bid.
As has been documented over the last week, the idea that there is a Catholic bloc or reliable Catholic vote is a myth. However, there are definite subgroups of voters that are deemed quite important, particularly to the Democrats. The Latino Catholic voters (supporting Clinton in the latest polls with a 77% majority) are essential in swing states such as Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia and Florida. Similarly, pro-life Catholics may be essential to Trump in states such as Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
This raises the issue of the two Vice Presidential candidates. Catholics are faced with a curious situation this election. The ardently pro-life Republican Vice Presidential candidate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, was raised a Catholic but is now attending a non-denominational Christian church. The pro-abortion Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, Kaine, has been termed inaccurately a “Pope Francis Catholic” and is in favor of women’s ordination and same-sex marriage.
In his acceptance speech for the Vice Presidential nomination, Kaine expressed both his own Catholic upbringing and assured the convention and America that he supported Hillary Clinton’s efforts to protect Roe v. Wade.
This is a rather depressing moment for Catholics, who can lament both the spiritual wanderings of the pro-life Pence, and the poor religious formation of the pro-abortion Kaine. The two are mirrors of each other in the confused years of the post-conciliar era.
But if there is confusion on the part of many in the modern Catholic electorate, it is not for want of materials today to be educated both in authentic doctrine and holiness. All voters, especially Catholic voters, have a duty to form their consciences properly. Much will be made about the primacy of conscience in the coming few months, and likely little will be said about forming it properly to begin with.
History was made in Philadelphia with the nomination of Hillary Clinton, and now we begin the long grind of a campaign likely to be marked by scorched earth politics. Accusations, charges, media blitzes and bruising debates will soon follow.
In the coming days, there will be time for serious reflection on a presidential election unique in American history. In discerning the road ahead, let us all consider two basic teachings. The first comes from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Doctrinal Note on the Participation of Catholics in Political Life:
Living and acting in conformity with one's own conscience on questions of politics is not slavish acceptance of positions alien to politics or some kind of confessionalism, but rather the way in which Christians offer their concrete contribution so that, through political life, society will become more just and more consistent with the dignity of the human person.
The second is from the U.S. Bishops' document on voting, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”:
The Church equips its members to address political and social questions by helping them to develop a well-formed conscience. Catholics have a serious and lifelong obligation to form their consciences in accord with human reason and the teaching of the Church. Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere “feeling” about what we should or should not do. Rather, conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil. Conscience always requires serious attempts to make sound moral judgments based on the truths of our faith…
Let’s start by taking these principles as our own. And let’s all remember our country in our prayers. America is going to need them.