The controversy over President Donald Trump’s visit to the St. John Paul II National Shrine highlighted a potential new development in the Catholic Church’s relationship with the presidency in the United States. Prominent voices, led by the local ordinary, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., thought that the visit should have been canceled; moreover, that it was a betrayal of Catholic values not to have canceled it.
No presidential visit to a Catholic institution has roused such controversy since the University of Notre Dame conferred an honorary doctorate on President Barack Obama in 2009. The circumstances are both similar and different: similar, in that critics thought the president should not have been invited; different, in that Obama was being honored by Notre Dame, while the Trump visit was (ostensibly) to honor Pope St. John Paul II.
The visit to the St. John Paul II National Shrine, operated by the Knights of Columbus, had been planned some time ago specifically for June 2, the date in 1979 when John Paul arrived for the first time in Poland as pope. That visit marked the beginning of the end for the Soviet empire.
Trump has honored that papal pilgrimage before; on a trip to Warsaw in 2017 he spoke at length about St. John Paul II’s homily on June 2, 1979, in Warsaw’s Victory Square.
Trump’s visit was intended to be an homage to John Paul and the occasion for signing a new executive order elevating the importance of religious liberty in U.S. foreign policy. The order mandates training in religious liberty for all State Department employees.
The visit followed less than 24 hours after Trump visited St. John’s Episcopal Church across the street from the White House. Protesters were forcibly dispersed to clear the area for the president, who stood outside the church holding a Bible. There was no visit inside the church or meeting with parishioners. Trump intended to convey symbolically that his administration would defend churches against violence; St. John’s had been vandalized in the rioting, part of it set on fire.
The visit, though, was not coordinated with the church, and local clergy were among those cleared away by police. The local Episcopal bishop vehemently denounced the visit as treating the church and the Bible as a prop in a photo-op. That criticism was echoed by the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Archbishop Gregory’s Intervention
“Reprehensible” is not a word often used by Catholic bishops. And perhaps never to describe a decision of the Knights of Columbus. That was the language employed by Archbishop Gregory to express his outrage at Trump’s presence at the shrine.
“I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree,” Archbishop Gregory said.
Archbishop Gregory is not averse to strong language. Recall his introductory news conference last year when he arrived in Washington. Speaking just a few feet from his predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop Gregory said over and over again that he “promised to always tell the truth.” It was not subtle, and quite a departure from the usual laudatory style bishops employ with each other.
Archbishop Gregory’s statement about the president’s presence was echoed by some lay Catholic leaders, but not by any other bishops. Nevertheless, as a well-respected bishop of long standing and as the archbishop of the national capital, his intervention carries significant weight and must be taken seriously.
The objection of Archbishop Gregory was not to what was said or done at the visit. President Trump made no remarks. He and the first lady laid a wreath before the outdoor statue of John Paul and inside knelt in prayer before the saint’s relics.
Nor was the objection to Trump’s executive order, signed later that day at the White House, promoting international religious liberty.
Archbishop Gregory’s objection was to the presence of the president itself, which he said was a “misuse” and “manipulation” of the shrine. It appears that Archbishop Gregory’s statement was about the current moment, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. More specifically — since Trump himself said of the killing that “all Americans were rightly sickened and revolted by the brutal death of George Floyd” — Archbishop Gregory’s objection was to the rhetoric and conduct of the president in regards to the widespread protests and riots that followed, including the visit to St. John’s the day before.
Policy or the Person?
Archbishop Gregory’s objection is a potential new development on two grounds.
If the archbishop’s objection was to the policies Trump advocated and implemented in light of the protests and riots, then his objection to Trump’s presence would have ample precedents in the positions taken by other bishops regarding other presidents and other issues, including the Obama visit to Notre Dame in 2009.
In general, though, the U.S. bishops have made a distinction between honoring a public figure as opposed to meeting with a public figure. It has not been the usual practice to refuse a presidential visit because of a policy disagreement, so Archbishop Gregory’s statement may indicate a shift in that position. It is possible that Archbishop Gregory saw the visit as bestowing an honor and the shrine understood it as hosting a distinguished visitor.
If the archbishop’s objection was a stronger one, namely that Trump himself should not be welcomed at Catholic facilities because he seeks to “misuse” and “manipulate” those occasions in violation of Catholic “religious principles,” then it’s a shift to another ground. Now it is not the policy, but the person who holds the office, who has become too objectionable to consort with.
A few weeks ago, similar criticisms were made about a phone call that Trump had with hundreds of Catholic leaders about Catholic education. A telephone meeting to discuss Catholic education was uncontroversial, but when Trump made campaign-style remarks during the call, it was criticized as a partisan engagement. A stronger criticism was that Catholic bishops and leaders should not have agreed to the call in the first place, reasonably expecting that it would be “misused” and “manipulated.”
For generations, Catholic bishops have dealt amicably with presidents with whom they have had serious disagreements — on abortion, immigration, nuclear arms, economic policy, religious liberty and health care. Policy conflicts have not rendered a president persona non grata. There are Catholic leaders now — though not explicitly including Archbishop Gregory at this point — who are advocating President Trump should be just that.
Distancing From Trump
“It’s absolutely inappropriate for the president of the United States to be using a Catholic facility like the shrine for a photo op for his reelection,” Stephen Schneck, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, told the National Catholic Reporter. “We have to insist that the Catholic Church in the United States maintain its distance from a person who represents nothing that our Church represents.”
Schneck is a senior voice in Democratic politics, having served in 2012 as co-chairman for “Catholics for Obama.” He is a respected professor who served as chairman of the politics department at The Catholic University of America for 12 years (1995-2007) and as director of the university’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.
Schneck’s position is that no Catholic institution should host Trump, as the president only intends such events to help with his reelection. Trump would not be the only politician who might visit a Catholic facility for political gain, so on that ground alone he would not be excluded. He would be excluded because he “represents nothing that our Church represents.”
That claim is too sweeping, as the very executive order the shrine visit was meant to highlight would be a Catholic value. Schneck himself would readily acknowledge, as he campaigned for the reelection of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, that it is possible for a candidate to represent some Catholic positions while disagreeing with others.
How, then, would Schneck and like-minded leaders make a distinction between Trump and Biden, for example, and conclude that the former “represents nothing that our Church represents”? That cannot be only a policy conclusion, but a judgment on the person himself, that he is not fit to be welcomed by Catholic institutions.
If so, that would be a departure from customary Catholic posture toward political figures, which usually understate disagreements and overstate the possibilities of cooperative engagement. For example, in recent years, Churchmen dealing even with hostile regimes in Cuba Venezuela, Nicaragua and China have called for constructive dialogue, not severing of relations.
It is possible that this Catholic rhetoric regarding Trump is influenced by the high-octane and low-civility rhetoric that is found all over Washington, beginning with the White House. In recent weeks, Trump has said that the senior Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is a “sick woman” with “mental problems.” Pelosi, for her part, said that Trump is “morbidly obese.” That development, now many years in the making, is best kept distant from the life of the Church.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.