Catholics React to Chaos at the Capitol

Leaders and commentators recommend prayer in wake of violence.

D.C. National Guard troops stand watch at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 8 in Washington. Fencing was put up around the building the day before, following the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters on Jan. 6.
D.C. National Guard troops stand watch at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 8 in Washington. Fencing was put up around the building the day before, following the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters on Jan. 6. (photo: John Moore / Getty Images)

For at least the past four years, political opinion within the U.S. Church has been deeply divided, including among conservative Catholics who differed in their support or lack thereof for President Donald Trump.

But in the last days of Trump’s presidency, the vast majority of Catholics found cause to unite. The violent overtaking of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by some of the participants in a pro-Trump rally that had gathered in Washington, D.C., to protest the 2020 presidential election results was swiftly and decisively denounced by Catholic leaders of all political persuasions.

“I join people of goodwill in condemning the violence today at the United States Capitol,” said Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and one of several bishops to comment on the riot. “This is not who we are as Americans.”

The siege transpired shortly after 2pm local time, as members of Congress convened to certify the Electoral College vote that would establish Joe Biden as the 46th president. Trump paraphernalia-clad protesters, who had just come from a “Save America” rally near the White House, where Trump said he would “never concede” the election, breached the Capitol’s security perimeter and entered the building illegally. 

Members of Congress were eventually evacuated, as law enforcement confronted intruders. During the ensuing chaos, one demonstrator was shot to death, while three others later died in “medical emergencies,” according to news reports. A Capitol police officer also later died. Intruders vandalized, looted and took bizarre staged photos in iconic places in the Capitol, such as the House dais. “It was one of the most notable political self-destructions in recent memory, an orgy of ineffectual visual chaos suited for the internet age,” said Gladden Pappin, a political philosopher at the University of Dallas, in one of the more colorful descriptions of the events that transpired.

 

Symbolic Nature

U.S. citizens have already received an unhealthy dose of political violence over the past several months, most notably as demonstrations against police shootings of Black persons spilled into violence and destruction in several cities throughout the summer.

However, the rioting at the nation’s Capitol stood out to many commentators for its symbolic nature.

“There are few words that can describe the shock I feel to see our Capitol Building occupied by violent rioters,” Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, said in a Jan. 6 tweet. “As Americans, we should be deeply disturbed to see an important symbol of freedom and liberty violated in such a way. Our nation is better than that.”

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., told the Register the riots in the Capitol “undermin[ed] the very principle of democracy itself, tearing at the fabric of who we are as a nation.”

“I’m upset because I’ve watched my country come under attack,” Fortenberry told the Register’s Lauretta Brown

“I’ve watched a mob develop and take over a precious institution that I have been charged with guarding and guiding as a representative of 600,000 people who’ve invested their trust in me.” 

Princeton political philosopher Robert George was struck by the rioters’ timing, bursting into the Capitol to interrupt the process by which power is peacefully transferred from one officeholder to the next.

“It was directed precisely at disrupting a constitutional process, and I think people need to be willing to acknowledge that,” he said. 

George acknowledged that procedural systems, including America’s, are not necessarily perfect and that concerns about widespread voter fraud in the election may perhaps be legitimate. 

“But despite its imperfections, it’s our duty as patriotic citizens to rely on those procedures and respect their outcomes, rather than taking the law into our own hands and disrupting a constitutionally prescribed process.”

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco agreed. “To attack the U.S. Capitol to express your fear that democracy has been denied is wrong, and also counterproductive,” he said in a Jan. 6 statement. “Doubts about free and fair elections cannot be redressed by violence against our democratic institutions.”

 

Criticism for Trump and the Left

Some commentators pointed to Trump’s actions, citing both his immediate rhetoric at the “Save America” rally and also what they characterized as similarly inflammatory comments throughout his presidency.

“What we saw today was only the logical endpoint of the last four years,” said Jonathan Last, executive editor of the conservative, “never-Trumper” publication The Bulwark. “I and many others specifically predicted that this would come to pass: that Trump would refuse to concede, insist the election was stolen, try to overturn the results, and incite his followers to violence.” 

Trump also received more measured criticism from Catholics who have been enthusiastically supportive about his presidency, including his challenges to the 2020 election results as fraudulent. Fortenberry acknowledged that he was “struggling” with Trump’s slow and mixed reaction to the violence, as he both urged the protesters to go home while also calling them “special” and “patriots.” 

In a statement, Brian Burch, president of the lobby group Catholic Vote and a staunch Trump backer, acknowledged the role the president’s “public rhetoric” played in causing the violence.

“President Trump has every right to demand answers to the many unresolved electoral irregularities,” Burch said. “He likewise has a responsibility to pursue justice in a way that does not lead to lawlessness.”

But Burch also laid a portion of the responsibility for the chaos at the feet of the media and political leaders, presumably Democratic politicians, who he said have demonstrated a “shameful double standard” in their treatment of political violence, depending on from which side of the spectrum it emanates. 

“Regrettably, the excusing of Antifa mob violence over the past eight months sent the unmistakable message that if you are unhappy with a specific political or social issue, the answer is violence and mayhem,” Burch said.

“A year of [COVID-19 related] lockdowns has bred general anomie, and widespread left-wing violence in summer 2020 made fringe protesters more willing to consider extreme tactics,” assessed UD’s Pappin. “The media and political establishment will continue to overlook the shared desperation behind these outbursts.”

 

America’s Future

Observers also pointed out that the Capitol riot was the product of much more fundamental trends in recent decades, especially increasing polarization and disintegrating national unity.

“We no longer view each other as fellow citizens with whom we disagree on policy matters but to whom we owe honor and respect,” said George, who makes no secret of his close relationship with Cornel West, a stark ideological opposite. “No, we’ve gotten ourselves into a situation where Republicans and Democrats, progressives and conservatives regard each other as enemies: people to be defeated, people who are threats to all that is true and good and noble and just.”

Catholic University of America political theologian Chad Pecknold presented his diagnosis of the root cause by tweeting a quote from St. Augustine.

“Where there is no true justice there can be no association of men united by a common sense of right, and therefore no people. … And if there is no people, then there is no ‘weal of the people,’ but some kind of mob, not deserving the name of the people.”

Bill McCormick, a Jesuit political theorist at St. Louis University, pointed to the outsized role politics has come to play in contemporary life in the U.S., often engaged in as a kind of substitute for religion and transcendent concerns.

“I don’t want anyone to ever call an election or voting ‘sacred’ again,” McCormick tweeted. “Today was caused by confusing politics with salvation.”

Catholic leaders of all stripes recommended prayer for the nation. And while he’s not opposed to that prescription, Jonathan Last believes that some foreboding writing about America’s future may already be on the wall.

“Our democracy is more fragile than most people realize,” he said. “The ‘guardrails’ aren’t physical things. They’re people. And if people fail, our democratic republic will fail. … And there is no reason to assume that the events of today are the epilogue of this authoritarian excursion rather than the prologue.”