President Donald Trump delivered one of the most Catholic speeches in recent memory in Warsaw on July 6, 2017. And Catholics may well be nervous about that.
Trump was full of praise for Poland’s two centuries of courage and fidelity on the front lines of freedom. Very specifically, he identified the key date in recent Polish history as the day that St. John Paul II returned home for the first time:
“And when the day came on June 2, 1979, and 1 million Poles gathered around Victory Square for their very first Mass with their Polish Pope, that day, every communist in Warsaw must have known that their oppressive system would soon come crashing down. ... They must have known it at the exact moment during Pope John Paul II’s sermon, when a million Polish men, women and children suddenly raised their voices in a single prayer. A million Polish people did not ask for wealth. They did not ask for privilege. Instead, 1 million Poles sang three simple words: ‘We want God.’ ... As I stand here today, before this incredible crowd, this faithful nation, we can still hear those voices that echo through history. Their message is as true today as ever. The people of Poland, the people of America, and the people of Europe still cry out: ‘We want God.’”
Whether or not that is true about America, let alone Europe, it was remarkable to hear a president say it. And while it might be thought easy to quote John Paul in Poland, Trump’s team evidently did some further research, quoting the Catholic martyr Blessed Michael Kozal:
“The Polish martyr Bishop Michael Kozal said it well: ‘More horrifying than a defeat of arms is a collapse of the human spirit.’”
(Beatified by John Paul, Bishop Kozal was murdered by lethal injection in Dachau, the Nazi death camp called the “largest monastery” in history. Among those imprisoned there were some 2,600 priests; more than 1,000 were killed.)
On his way to the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, Trump argued that the great powers of the world ought to look to Poland for a model on how to remain faithful to the ideals of a free and virtuous society. He argued that Western civilization — rooted in certain ideas about God, the human person and liberty — depends upon more than force of arms or a surfeit of material goods to survive:
“We have to remember that our defense is not just a commitment of money, it is a commitment of will. Because as the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means, but also on the will of its people to prevail. … The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. … Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it? We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons anywhere on Earth, but if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive. If anyone forgets the critical importance of these things, let them come to one country that never has. Let them come to Poland.”
As astonishing as it is to observe, Donald Trump sounded a bit like Benedict XVI on the future of Europe.
And it is the sheer surprising quality of the Warsaw speech that might give Catholics unease.
Trump is a very flawed vessel for the message of God, family and sacrifice for the common good. He is not evidently religious, has a history of self-confessed infidelity and is currently married to his third wife. His professional life has often sacrificed the common good for his own benefit.
A sinner can recognize saintly behavior. As the old expression puts it, hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. So that Trump, lacking personal credibility, was the speaker does not invalidate what he said. But it makes many observers suspicious that he regards even faith and values as instruments to be manipulated for his purposes.
Indeed, for some the messenger is so flawed that he corrupts the message.
That was the response from the elite media. The Washington Post: “Trump’s White Nationalist Dog Whistles in Warsaw.” The Atlantic: “The Racial and Religious Paranoia of Trump’s Warsaw Speech.” Doug Saunders of The Globe and Mail took leave entirely of the actual speech, conjuring up the darkest of his anxieties: “[Trump] shocked European observers by using the language of extreme-right and white-supremacist movements to make the case for ethnic exclusion and isolationism.”
The long-standing disdain for Trump in the elite media explains the unhinged nature of such commentary. There was not a hint of racial superiority in Trump’s text. However, Trump’s record of inflammatory and irresponsible rhetoric makes it inevitable that not a few listeners look past the uplifting text for a malign subtext.
Why ought this to worry Catholics? When praise for universally acknowledged Polish courage and fidelity becomes coded racism in the minds of influential observers, it betrays an attitude that considers religious conviction a fundamentally malign force.
The fevered reaction to Trump’s speech demonstrated how entrenched that view is among commentators of wide reach.
There is another worry, about Trump himself. He returned from Europe to another round of controversy, lies and scandals. Should the Trump presidency dissolve in discord and disgrace, it will have a debilitating effect on those ideas he advanced — including the vision and values he advanced in Warsaw.
An additional difficulty arose from the audience that Trump addressed. Poland is governed by the Law and Justice party, which has pursued a populist and nationalist agenda not shy about curtailing civil liberties and trimming on the rule of law. It has objected to the European Union’s welcome of refugees and migrants and been especially critical of the policy of its neighbor, Germany.
Policy differences on such matters need to be handled with discretion and delicacy, lest the more aggressive dimensions of blood-and-soil nationalism be unleashed. The Law and Justice party has not been scrupulous in this regard, giving rise to criticism that its policies are animated by hostility to other races and to Muslims.
Bringing a Law and Justice audience to a Trump speech, with his record of inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric, is a reason for many to be alarmed. That the Law and Justice party finds support among conservative Catholics, as “conservative” or “right-wing” are understood in Polish politics, should make Catholics nervous that the Church’s public witness might be tarred by association with the ugly aspects of nationalism.
The text of President Trump’s speech in Warsaw was marvelous; it’s the context that may cause trouble.
is editor in chief of