By Christopher White
The Tablet National Correspondent
Two weeks after the surprising election of Donald Trump on Nov. 8, 2016, Bishop Mark Seitz convened the priests of his border diocese of El Paso, Texas.
“There was a great deal of fear because of all of the rhetoric,” he told The Tablet. “I was receiving calls from teachers asking what do I say to my schoolchildren that are coming to school crying and some of them are having panic attacks… There was a lot of fear and it began from the day of the election.”
“At that time we began to think about what we should be doing as a Church and what we could do,” Bishop Seitz recalled.
“To be honest with you, we were feeling kind of helpless…We couldn’t go to the people and say ‘don’t worry, there’s nothing to worry about.’ We really asked ourselves what can we say? What can we do?”
At that meeting his priests suggested the formation of a diocesan committee that could rapidly respond to decisions being made in Austin, the state’s capital, and in Washington, D.C.
Yet along with responding to the political concerns, Bishop Seitz knew that he must also respond as a pastor, and on the morning of July 18, Bishop Seitz held a breakfast where he signed and released a pastoral letter, “Sorrow and Mourning Flee Away.” At his side were DACA beneficiaries who had once believed they were safe to reside in this country, but since the election of Trump, have been left with an unknown legal fate.
“As your bishop, I pledge my commitment to stand with you in this time of anxiety and fear. I promise to hear you, celebrate you, break bread with you, pray with you and weep with you. You possess a dignity that no earthly law or court can take away,” he wrote at the time.
U.S. Bishops Shift Gears
One week after Election Day, the U.S. bishops gathered in Baltimore for their annual fall assembly, where the nation’s 400 plus Catholic bishops were forced to wrestle with the election outcome.
“Just like the rest of the nation we were very surprised by the outcome of the election,” Bishop Seitz told The Tablet, “and that’s not trying to characterize it in one way or another, I just think the entire nation was very surprised at the outcome.”
“In a certain sense we felt we weren’t really prepared for this and what would be the implications,” he said.
“We had thought a lot about what it would mean for the Church if Hillary Clinton was elected and we were very concerned about some of those potential implications because she took a stance against things like religious liberty and the life issues that were the most extreme we had heard,” Bishop Seitz recalled.
“We were pretty much preparing for that mentally…but when President Trump was elected, we had to re-gear and it presented to us a whole different list of threats…we had to retool ourselves.”
If Trump kept his campaign promises, the conference believed it could breathe easier on matters surrounding abortion and religious liberty, hence immigration took center stage as the bishops commenced their meeting by sending a congratulatory letter to Trump but warning that they would not back down on immigration.
“We pray that as the new administration begins its role leading our country, it will recognize the contributions of refugees and immigrants to the overall prosperity and well-being of our nation,” they wrote.
In short order, the bishops elected a new slate of conference leaders meant to reflect their shifting priorities. Most notably, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles was elected as vice-president of the conference.
Archbishop Gomez, who was born in Mexico, has long been considered one of the most vocal members on immigration of the Church hierarchy. Just two nights after the election, he held a prayer service at the Los Angeles cathedral where he passionately denounced the harsh language used toward immigrants during the campaign. “We are not this kind of people. We are better than this,” he said.
As Cardinal Timothy Dolan told The Tablet in August, immigration was now the glue that was unifying the conference.
“We had achieved under the leadership of Cardinal Francis George a remarkable unanimity when it came to the defense of religious freedom,” said Dolan, “and now, we’re at it again.”
Immigration Takes Center Stage
One month after their meeting in Baltimore, the bishops’ conference announced the formation of a working group on immigration, chaired by Archbishop Gomez that would be responsible for monitoring federal actions on migrants and refugees.
In his column for Chicago’s archdiocesan newspaper, Cardinal Blase Cupich outlined the work of the group.
“Particular attention will be given to addressing the economic struggles, alienation, fear and exclusion many feel, along with the resistance to the church’s message regarding migrants and refugees,” he wrote.
The following month, at the Mass before the annual March for Life, Cardinal Dolan used his homily to link concerns for unborn children to the cause of migrants.
“Refugees and immigrants continue to believe that this nation is still a sanctuary, as they arrive with relief and thanksgiving,” said Cardinal Dolan. “We pray they are never let down!”
While the bishops expressed approval with the Trump administration’s immediate actions on pro-life initiatives, they were outraged by the fact that on the very same day Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the March for Life, Trump handed down his first travel ban on refugees.
In response, Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, Texas and chairman of the Committee on Migration, issued a statement saying “We strongly disagree with the Executive Order’s halting refugee admissions” and promising that the U.S. bishops would work “vigorously to ensure that refugees are humanely welcomed.”
At a speech the following month in Modesto, California at the World Meeting of Popular Movements, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego told the crowd, “President Trump was the candidate of disruption. He was the disrupter,” and went on to add, “Well now, we must all become disrupters.”
According to John Carr, Director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University and a former senior policy official for the U.S. bishops, their frequent level of public engagement since the election is necessitated by the times.
“In some ways, the visibility of the conference’s work depends on the nature of the congressional agenda and the President’s priorities,” Carr told The Tablet. “When you have a president who calls for a ban on refugees, demonizes immigrants, walks away from care for creation, the conference has a duty to respond and they are meeting that obligation.”
“I have been impressed and encouraged by the principled, consistent, and persistent work of the bishops’ conference to defend the unborn, the undocumented, the poor, and the vulnerable,” said Carr.
Carr believes it’s natural for there to be periods when the conference is more inward focused and other times for the conference to be more outwardly engaged.
“During healthcare reform debates, the bishops were very visible, both on universal access and on protecting human life and religious freedom, so there was lots of activity,” said Carr. “During the lead-up to the Iraq war, the bishops were outspoken on the moral questions and dangers of going to war.”
Yet while the bishops have been a regular presence on the national scene this past year, Carr insists that their actions are not driven by partisan concerns.
“The bishops don’t make sweeping political judgments,” he said. “Instead, they challenge policies that violate Catholic social teaching. And in these first nine months, that has been critical time and time again.”
“Sometimes it’s hard for the bishops’ conference to break through in Washington because the way they speak is different from business as usual in Washington. They don’t attack motives, they don’t call names, they don’t threaten,” he said. “Instead they appeal to our leaders’ consciences and they speak from experience.”
Carr believes that while immigration has now become the central issue for the conference, the actions of the Trump administration are also shining a light on other areas of work where the bishops are visible.
“Defending the lives of immigrants and refugees unites the conference,” said Carr. “So does defending the poor and the vulnerable.”
According to Lutheran pastor David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, one of the nation’s largest Christian organizations dedicated to fighting worldwide hunger, “The Catholic bishops have done outstanding work on poverty issues this year.”
“Starting with the executive order on refugees, and the series of statements on healthcare, and attempts to repeal Obamacare, and now on taxes,” said Beckmann, “they always maintain caution and civility, and they’re above partisanship always, but they’ve also been really clear.”
“It’s really clear that the Catholic community is a strong advocate for people in poverty at a time when the current U.S. government has completely different priorities,” Beckmann told The Tablet.
Activism, Statements, and Scrutiny
While both Carr and Beckmann have praised the leadership of the bishops, their active engagement has come under scrutiny by other Catholics.
Deal Hudson, editor of The Christian Review and a former advisor to the Bush campaign, told The Tablet that he was “100% certain” that the bishops’ “adversarial position” on immigration would limit their ability to work with the administration on other issues.
“The first three or four months I kept a pretty close eye on the statements coming out of the conference, and I started doing a tally as to how many of them were calling out the president either by name or his administration in a critical way,” said Hudson. “Almost all of them were critical of the president and his administration and that the majority of the press releases were about the immigration issue.”
Yet Hudson says that he is used to a narrow focus from the conference and believes that if the bishops are upset with the election outcome, they have no one but themselves to blame.
“Having gone through the Bush years or the Reagan years, where the bishops’ conference was more of the same, from my perspective it’s more of the same disappointment,” Hudson said.
“I think the bishops helped President Trump get elected because of their single minded focus on one issue,” he told The Tablet. “They wasted all of their ammunition on immigration.”
As both the nation and the Church have adjusted for an election outcome that few predicted, it’s clear that the Trump presidency has spurred activism across the board.
Of the over 230 official statements released from the United States Conference of Catholics Bishops since November 8, 15 percent have been related to the plight of immigrants and refugees.
“What has changed is not the teachings, not the policies of the conference,” Carr told The Tablet. “What has changed is the agenda of the administration and the Congress.”
“Just as people said religious liberty is not a fight the bishops chose, defending the poor, defending the immigrants, working to protect the environment are not battles of their choosing. They are requirements of our faith.”