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.
Day One of the Democratic National Convention began with unexpected turbulence. What had been a smooth process of nominating Hillary Clinton as the Democrats’ presidential candidate was sideswiped by the leak over the weekend of 20,000 Democratic National Committee emails on Wikileaks. The leak led to the resignation of DNC Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz and sparked new fury by the supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders that the Democratic primary had been possibly unduly influenced by collusion between the Clinton campaign and the leadership of the party.
While one week ago the Republican National Convention opening was plagued by the embarrassment over Melania Trump’s use of borrowed language from Michelle Obama in her convention speech, the DNC’s start is unquestionably struggling with severe political headaches—including fissures in party unity, possible efforts by liberals to block Sen. Tim Kaine’s vice presidential nomination and protests by Sanders’ supporters. If that were not enough, the Democrats are facing what was once utterly unthinkable: Donald Trump received a 10-point bounce in the polls and now has a narrow lead over Clinton.
The CNN poll—with many more to come in the next days—showed a significant favorable response to his nomination acceptance speech last week. It remains to be seen whether Trump has connected with faith voters, especially Catholics who—as was noted here last week—have presented a stubborn challenge to the Trump campaign.
There will be much more to say about Sen. Kaine this week, but as the DNC begins, a few things were notable about the coverage over the weekend.
First, the Clinton campaign made the calculation to choose as her running mate a veteran political figure with strong national security credentials, popular standing in Virginia and fluency in Spanish. Included in the political gamble was the image projected by many in the secular media that Kaine is a “devout Catholic.” The Washington Post described him as a “Pope Francis Catholic” despite his 100% rating for the radical pro-abortion organizations NARAL and Planned Parenthood since joining the Senate in 2013.
It is a statement of where our cultural and political dialogue have gone that Kaine is nevertheless wholly unacceptable to many on the American Left who see him as unacceptably moderate.
The Kaine pick has also re-sparked the old debate and discussion about Catholic politicians who declare themselves to be personally opposed to abortion while supporting pro-abortion legislation or doing nothing to oppose such legislation.
Meanwhile, the movement sparked by Bernie Sanders was in full force in Philadelphia on Day One. There was a massive march of his supporters through the streets of Philadelphia, and speakers were booed fiercely in the afternoon session over the rules that governed the controversial primary process—especially the so-called Unification Committee intended to reform the primary system and make it more (to use the term) democratic.
All of this made the political stakes of Sanders’ speech on Monday night all the higher. Like Sen. Ted Cruz a week ago, there was much speculation as to what he would say—and also like Cruz, the reception was a raucous one. But unlike Cruz, who was booed off the stage for refusing to endorse Donald Trump, Sanders decided to embrace Clinton while attempting to calm his outraged followers. It is possible that his own movement may have moved out of his control, and the remaining few days will show whether they follow his call to unify behind Hillary or refuse to accept the political fait accompli. If it proves the latter, the convention could end in disunity.
What is a Catholic to take away from the start of the convention?
A reading of the 2016 Democratic platform reveals the most severe pro-abortion statement ever issued by a major political party. More on this tomorrow, but many Catholics and pro-life voters even in the Democratic Party have already noted that the platform mentions “reproductive health” and abortion nineteen times in a 55-page document, calls for an end to the Hyde Amendment that bans the use of federal money to fund abortions and demands the repeal of the Helms Amendment that prohibits the use of federal aid overseas to fund abortions. And in a telling moment, during Sanders’ address to the convention, at the moment when he endorsed Clinton, the camera panned to her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Standing next to him was Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood. For pro-lifers trying to read the tea leaves as to where the priorities are for the party and the Clintons, the cup could not have been clearer.
Look for more speakers to raise abortion and the other cultural issues that so far are dominant in the rhetoric of the convention. During the RNC, Trump personally stayed away from the social issues, the so-called culture wars. Clinton seems poised to make them a centerpiece of her campaign. What impact that will have on Catholic voters and faith voters in general—who began the RNC largely in her camp—will be another one of those little indicators as to the direction of the electorate.
And then there is Kaine’s upcoming speech. If he survives a rumored challenge to his nomination, he will have the task—like Gov. Mike Pence before him at the RNC—of assuaging doubts by voters regarding the top of the ticket. If he also uses the code language of the pro-abortion movement (“reproductive health”, “choice”, etc.) Catholics will have one more element in evaluating the full dimensions of Hillary’s agenda both for the fall campaign and her prospective presidency.
As with any convention, there are many side stories, drama, unexpected events born of human frailty and moments that reveal the true measure of both the parties and the candidates. As with last week in Cleveland, Catholics need to keep praying, listening, watching and discerning. The more we know, the better informed we are, and the more we bring to the great conversation that is needed before America chooses the road for the next years ahead. As the U.S. Bishops wrote in their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”:
The Catholic community brings important assets to the political dialogue about our nation’s future. We bring a consistent moral framework—drawn from basic human reason that is illuminated by Scripture and the teaching of the Church—for assessing issues, political platforms, and campaigns. We also bring broad experience in serving those in need—educating the young, serving families in crisis, caring for the sick, sheltering the homeless, helping women who face difficult pregnancies, feeding the hungry, welcoming immigrants and refugees, reaching out in global solidarity, and pursuing peace. We celebrate, with all our neighbors, the historically robust commitment to religious freedom in this country that has allowed the Church the freedom to serve the common good. (No. 12).