By Christopher White, National Correspondent
NEW YORK — President Donald Trump identified himself as the “best [president] in the history of the Catholic Church” in a conference call for Catholic leaders and educators April 25, where he warned that issues at stake in the upcoming presidential election, particularly on abortion and religious liberty, “have never been more important for the Church.”
Trump also pledged support for Catholic schools in light of the global coronavirus pandemic.
In an audio recording of the meeting obtained by The Tablet, the president repeatedly emphasized his support for the pro-life movement and school choice, attempting to paint a stark contrast between his administration and what a Democratic presidency could mean for Catholics.
The Tablet was told by two participants that over 600 people were on the call, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Bishop Michael C. Barber of Oakland, chair of the USCCB committee of Catholic Education, as well as the superintendents of Catholic schools for Los Angeles and Denver, among others.
In his opening remarks, the president noted that he was joined on the call by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Secretary of Housing and Education Ben Carson.
Saturday’s call comes just one week after the president held a call with faith leaders on April 17, which also included the participation of Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Gomez, meant to discuss the re-opening of houses of worship, but where the president also sought reelection support.
In his opening remarks, the president thanked Catholic educators for their efforts in distance learning during the pandemic, as well as the spiritual support they are providing to families. Citing his own childhood of growing up next to a Catholic parish and school in Queens, New York, the president characterized Catholic schools as “a source of strength, hope, opportunity for communities across the country.”
The president also referenced the COVID-19 paycheck protection program, which was included in the initial relief package passed by Congress in March to provide forgivable paycheck loans. The president told participants in the call that he insisted that Catholic institutions be included in the program or “I wouldn’t do the deal.”
He also used his opening remarks to recite a number of economic accomplishments of his administration, saying that prior to the pandemic he was responsible for the greatest economy in the history the country, with the “best numbers” for African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and women, until the economy was “unfairly hit” by the coronavirus.
He said the spread of the virus “could have been stopped a lot earlier…if it was stopped at the source, and everyone knows what I mean when I say that.”
Looking ahead to the economy’s re-opening, the president said the country is “going to open up with a bang.”
Yet the president’s most frequented theme in his opening remarks was that of his commitment to pro-life cause, saying that it has “been at a level that no other president has seen before, according to everybody.”
“I’m just saying what everybody is saying,” he said, citing the fact that he was first sitting president to address the March for Life in person in January, the annual event in protest of the legalization of abortion by the Supreme Court in 1973.
He also referenced his support for the Mexico City policy, which prevents federal funding for NGO’s that provide abortion related services. The policy was instituted by President Ronald Reagan and has been reinstated by every Republican president since 1984. (On the call, however, the president erroneously stated that Reagan was the last to sign it.)
He also highlighted his opposition to the Johnson Amendment, which prevents tax exempt institutions from endorsing or opposing political candidates. He described it as “very viscous, adding that “I got rid of it so you can express your views very strongly.”
Following approximately 15 minutes of opening remarks, the president also took questions a pre-selected pool of participants before opening it up to others on the call.
Cardinal Dolan was the first to speak, whom the president hailed as a “great gentleman” and a “great friend of mine,” adding that he respects what the cardinal “asks for.”
The New York cardinal said he was “honored to be the lead-off batter, and the feelings are mutual sir,” noting that the two had been on the phone often in recent months and joking that Cardinal Dolan’s 90-year-old mom in Missouri says “I call you more than I call her.”
Cardinal Dolan praised the support of DeVos, Carson, and special counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway as “champions” and “cherished allies in our passion for our beloved schools.”
He focused on education, saying that it concerns “parental rights, educational justice, and civil rights of our kids” and thanked the president for his “courageous insistence that the nonprofits, faith communities, and our schools be included” in the recent stimulus package.
Cardinal Dolan warned, however, that current funding toward schools is only guaranteed through this academic year and that many Catholic schools around the country are “really scared” about September, saying that tuition assistance for parents to continue to send their children to Catholic schools was greatly needed
“Never has the outlook financially looked more bleak, but perhaps never has the outlook looked more promising given the energetic commitment that your administration has to our schools,” Cardinal Dolan told the president. “We need you more than ever.”
The president responded by reminding attendees of his reelection efforts, saying the “situation coming up on November 3, the likes of which have never been more important for the Church.”
He quickly pivoted to abortion, saying that Democrats “want abortion and they want it now and they want it to go up to the end of the ninth month and beyond,” and referenced the comments of Virginia Democratic Governor Ralph Northam who faced backlash last year for his support of third trimester abortion. The president also used the occasion to recall the final debate during his 2016 race against Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, where he criticized her support for late term abortion.
“We did very well defending that during our last race with Hillary Clinton because she had it right up until the time at birth,” said the president on Saturday. “We probably helped out the pro-life [cause] more than anything you can imagine.”
“I hope that everyone gets out and votes and does what they have to do,” he then said of the November election. “You’re going to have a very different Catholic Church,” he warned if he is defeated.
The president then took a question from Cardinal O’Malley, who redirected the discussion to Catholic education, saying “no institution in our country that has been more successful than Catholic schools in moving people from poverty to the middle class.”
The Boston cardinal urged the president to guarantee tuition assistance to families sending children to Catholic schools.
“We need it now,” he said. “It has to be done in a quick way that helps them to pay tuition.”
The president thanked Cardinal O’Malley, saying he’d “never heard it expressed so succinctly [and] frankly” in responding to the cardinal’s description of the value of Catholic education.
“We’ll be helping you out more than you even know,” he promised.
Both Paul Escala and Elias J. Moo, superintendents of Catholics schools for in Los Angeles and Denver, used their time to urge for continued school choice.
“Parental choice cannot be a casualty of this crisis,” said Escala, telling the president that “we stand with you,” emphasizing that Catholic schools in California have saved the government over two billion dollars.
“The other side is not in favor of it,” the president warned. “What a similarity we have and how the other side is the exact opposite of what you’re wanting so I guess it’s an important thing to remember.”
The president zeroed in on the savings amount and asked that a national figure of what Catholic schools save the federal government in education be determined so that he could convince Congress for greater funding.
Bishop Barber noted that the USCCB remains committed to partnering with the administration, hailing DeVos as a great ally to Catholics, as well as thanking the president for his selection of justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, whom he characterized as supporters of school choice.
Archbishop Gomez highlighted the sacrifices of Catholic educators to continue to provide quality education to children and said Church leaders remained committed to working with the administration to ensure that Catholic education continues.
He then offered a prayer asking that the Lord would “deliver the nation from the plague.”
Following the call, the president took to Twitter on Saturday evening to thank Catholic leaders for joining and to publicly announce that he would be tuning in to the live streamed Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday, presided over by Cardinal Dolan.
In the opening words of his homily, Cardinal Dolan said that he understood we have a “former neighbor worshipping with us,” saying that St. Paul admonishes Christians to pray for their leaders and “that we do.”
The New York cardinal offered his birthday blessings to First Lady Melania Trump, describing her as “gracious” and “effective” and thanked the president and his administration for “working so hard to see that we can safely return to Church as safely possible.”
Following the Sunday Mass, the president once more took to Twitter.
“Thank you for a great call yesterday with Catholic Leaders, and a great Service today,” he wrote.