James Martin, S.J.January 12, 2021
 Supporters of President Donald Trump join in prayer outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington Jan. 6, 2021, where U.S. Congress will meet in joint session to certify the Electoral College vote for President-elect Joe Biden. (CNS photo/Mike Theiler, Reuters)Supporters of President Donald Trump join in prayer outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington Jan. 6, 2021, where U.S. Congress will meet in joint session to certify the Electoral College vote for President-elect Joe Biden. (CNS photo/Mike Theiler, Reuters)

At the end of last August, the Rev. James Altman, the pastor of St. James the Less Parish in La Crosse, Wis., uploaded a video to YouTube that has been viewed over 1.2 million times. The video’s title voiced what an increasing number of Catholic bishops and priests were saying in the run-up to the presidential election: “You Cannot be a Catholic and a Democrat.”

“Their party platform absolutely is against everything the Catholic Church teaches,” said Father Altman, as music from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 swelled in the background. “So just quit pretending that you’re Catholic and vote Democrat. Repent of your support of that party and its platform or face the fires of hell.”

(Full disclosure: Father Altman referred to me as a “hyper-confusion spreading heretic” in the same video.)

Incorrect moral reasoning

There are traditional restrictions on Catholic clergy endorsing political candidates. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document on voting, “Faithful Citizenship,” states that the church should refrain from endorsing parties or candidates. As Pope Francis has said, the church is called “to form consciences, not to replace them.” More bluntly, a Vatican directive from 1994 says that a priest “ought to refrain from actively engaging himself in politics.”

The response of the local bishop to Father Altman’s video, however, was mixed. Bishop William Patrick Callahan released a written statement saying that while the tone was so “angry and judgmental” that it caused scandal, he understood “the undeniable truth that motivates [Father Altman’s] message.” He added that penalties might be applied if Father Altman did not respond to the bishop’s “fraternal correction.”

The U.S. bishops’ document on voting states that the church should refrain from endorsing parties or candidates. As Pope Francis has said, the church is called “to form consciences, not to replace them.”

In response, Father Altman simply doubled down, in a follow-up video titled “Liberal Catholics are Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing.” Later, he compared the tactics of people on the “left” to those of Nazis in one video interview and ratcheted up his comments on the LifeSite News show “Mother Miriam Live,” in an episode titled “If you vote for Biden you’re voting for the murder of babies.”

A few weeks later, the Rev. Ed Meeks, the pastor of Christ the King Church in Towson, Md., preached a homily, also uploaded to YouTube, under the title “Staring into the Abyss,” in which he declared the Democratic Party the “party of death.”

[Related: Pope Francis’ critics are dividing the church and families—including mine.]

Father Meeks’s video, which has received over two million views, was warmly commended by Bishop Joseph Strickland, of Tyler, Tex., who tweeted it out to his 40,000 followers with the message “Every Catholic should listen to this wise and faithful priest.” Earlier, Bishop Strickland had endorsed Father Altman’s video as well, tweeting, “As the Bishop of Tyler I endorse Fr Altman’s statement in this video. My shame is that it has taken me so long. Thank you Fr Altman for your COURAGE. If you love Jesus & His Church & this nation...pleases [sic] HEED THIS MESSAGE.” Father Altman later appeared as a guest on the premiere episode of “The Bishop Strickland Show” on LifeSite News.

Both videos focused on abortion. If a candidate was pro-choice, the priests said, then a Catholic could never vote for him or her because abortion is an intrinsic evil. Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane summed up this approach in one interview by asking, “If abortion is intrinsically evil...how can Catholics vote for a candidate like Biden?”

This, however, does not adequately reflect church teaching, which leaves the final choice on voting to an individual’s formed conscience, recognizing that there are many important issues that a voter might have to consider. As the U.S.C.C.B. states in “Faithful Citizenship”:

There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.

One “morally grave reason” would be if the pro-life candidate were unhinged, unfit to govern or somehow posed a threat to the republic—as President Trump confirmed he was by inciting a mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol, causing a stunningly violent riot that left five people dead.

Widespread pressure

Despite clear restrictions on political endorsements and the church’s longstanding teaching on conscience, the statements from Fathers Altman and Meeks and Bishop Strickland were part of a pattern of similar commentary from members of the clergy. Most did not make the news, as they were heard in homilies and read in parish bulletins. But they were no less effective in communicating the message that the election was an almost apocalyptic battle between good and evil.

In the weeks before the election, I received Facebook messages from many Catholics struggling to make sense of pastors who cast the election in such terms or condemned Democrats outright, either from the pulpit or in private conversations. Many felt not only attacked for their political views but alienated from their own parishes.

“How do I deal with my church life when my pastor says I am not a Catholic because I am a Biden supporter?” wrote one. “Father, I am struggling, I cannot vote for Donald Trump for many reasons. I’m being told if I vote for Joe Biden it’s a mortal sin. Can you please help me understand?” “Monsignor came to our house to chat about why our family left right after the divisive homily and why we were planning to leave the parish. This was the homily where he endorsed a political candidate and called anyone who voted for Biden a sinner or a pawn of the devil.”

Some provided links to homilies or letters that were posted online. The Rev. Kevin Cusick, the pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Benedict, Md., wrote: “Joe Biden is not a practicing Catholic. And practicing Catholics cannot vote for Biden for president in good conscience.” The Rev. David Miller, the pastor of St. Dorothy’s Parish in North Carolina, said in a homily posted to YouTube that if “[Mr. Biden] dies the way he is now, unrepentant for his years of denying Christ...before repentance...you and I know where he will go: He will be damned to hell for all eternity.”

This approach was not confined to the local level. Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former Archbishop of St. Louis and a former Vatican official, had called the Democrats the “party of death” in 2008. This past autumn, he was a guest on EWTN’s show “The World Over,” where he was interviewed by Raymond Arroyo, speaking of Mr. Biden as involved in a “grave, immoral evil that is the source of scandal.”

Perhaps the most frequent promoter of these arguments was Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former Vatican nuncio to the United States and one of Pope Francis’ most relentless critics. Mr. Biden, he said, is “a puppet manipulated by the elite, a puppet in the hands of people thirsty for power and willing to do anything to expand it.” Archbishop Viganò predicted that the election of Mr. Biden would usher in a near-Satanic age characterized by “ecumenism, Malthusian environmentalism, pansexualism and immigrationism.”

Archbishop Viganò predicted that the election of Mr. Biden would usher in a near-Satanic age characterized by “ecumenism, Malthusian environmentalism, pansexualism and immigrationism.”

I offer this lengthy list to show that these were not isolated incidents. Rather, they were part of a pattern of messages from bishops and priests casting the election not only in terms of pure good versus pure evil but in apocalyptic language.

Even after the election, such commentary continued. In late December, the Rev. Jeffrey Kirby, pastor of Our Lady of Grace in Lancaster, S.C., preached a homily on how to survive the “evil” Biden administration. Taking an even more extreme step, the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, who lives in Madison, Wis., and blogs as “Father Z,” conducted an exorcism, broadcast on YouTube, over those who were involved in counting votes, who he said had engaged in “fraud,” “sin,” “lying,” “cheating” and “stealing” and who “put their souls in terrible mortal peril,” as well as over “demonic influence.”

“This morning during the 8:30 AM Mass,” someone wrote me just last week, a priest “stated from the pulpit that...if you voted for Joe Biden you weren’t a real Christian.”

For his part, Father Altman spoke out the day after the riots with another priest, the Rev. Richard Heilman, in a video titled “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God,” in which he expressed his rage against left-wing “Nazis.”

Real-life consequences

Where does this kind of dualistic and often apocalyptic language lead? It can, of course, lead to some Catholics voting for Donald Trump over Joe Biden. But it can also lead to anger at pastors, division in parishes, alienation from the church, hatred of candidates and elected officials, contempt for people who belong to one party, rage over election results, despair in the future of the country and, ultimately, to violence. For if the “party of death” gains power, then one must resist, by any means necessary.

Such dualistic thinking was strongly critiqued by Pope Francis in his address to the Joint Session of Congress in 2015, in the very building that would be vandalized: “[T]here is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.”

One could argue that lay Catholic commentators should be allowed to condemn whomever they want and endorse whomever they please, no matter how hateful their language. It is a free country.

Pope Francis: “[T]here is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.”

But when it comes to priests and bishops, it is not a free church. Nor should it be. There are many good reasons why Catholic clergy do not endorse candidates. Some that are often adduced: The church should never be aligned with one or another party since it limits its freedom and even corrupts it; bishops and pastors should never endorse one candidate because it will split dioceses and parishes; and the church should never endorse because it could jeopardize its tax-exempt status.

For myself, I offered a prayer at the Democratic National Convention but would have been happy to have offered the same prayer, word for word, at the Republican convention, if I had been asked. And I did not endorse either candidate. The traditional restrictions on clergy are sensible guidelines.

These seemingly theoretical reasons were displaced with the eruption of mob violence in Washington, egged on by the supposedly pro-life candidate, which led to the vandalizing of a hallowed national symbol, the interruption of the election process, physical danger posed to legislators and law officers, and worse, the death of five people. Can anyone doubt that the moral calculus proposed by some Christian leaders, including Catholic priests and bishops, framed in the language of pure good versus pure evil, contributed to the presence of so many rioters brandishing overtly Christian symbols as they carried out their violence?

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Thus, the more important reason to avoid that kind of moral language is this: When casting an election in terms of pure evil and pure good, when saying that voting for one candidate will cause someone to go to hell or when demonizing candidates as monsters, one runs the risk of people drawing the conclusion that fighting against this, by any means necessary, is an absolute moral imperative. If one party is the “party of death,” then eradicating it is a triumph for life.

Personal vilification

This faulty moral reasoning—you will go to hell if you vote for Mr. Biden, you commit a mortal sin by not voting for President Trump, the Democrats are the party of death—was exacerbated by widespread personal vilification of candidates from Catholic leaders.

Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tenn., tweeted this about Mr. Biden and his “sidekick,” Senator Kamala Harris: “[I] don’t understand how Mr. Biden can claim to be a good and faithful Catholic as he denies so much of Church teaching, especially on the absolute child abuse and human rights violations of the most innocent, the not yet born,” followed by “And he also praises his sidekick who has shown time and time again in senate [sic] hearings that she is an anti-Catholic bigot....”

“Why is it that the supporters of this goddamn loser Biden and his morally corrupt, America-hating, God hating Democrat party can’t say a goddamn thing in support of their loser candidate without using the word Trump? What the hell do you have to say for yourselves losers?” the Rev. Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, wrote in a tweet that has since been deleted.

Bishops and priests need to understand the real-life effects of such contemptuous and even dehumanizing language.

Personal vilification from members of the clergy inevitably gives rise to a lack of respect from the faithful, making it easier for those in the pews to revile government and civic leaders. Why respect someone who is a “puppet,” “bound for hell,” not a “good and faithful Catholic” or “a walking and talking scandal,” as another priest said? If bishops, the pre-eminent teachers in their dioceses, treat people with such contempt, then one should not be surprised when the faithful take their lead and, in turn, treat their institutions as something to be taken, razed, destroyed—because they are destroying institutions run by evil men and their “sidekicks.”

Bishops and priests need to understand the real-life effects of such contemptuous and even dehumanizing language. Catholic bishops and priests are meant to teach morality, but they are not meant to judge others (as Jesus said clearly) or to treat people with such bitter contempt. The real-world effect of this kind of language was revealed at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Jesus is My Savior. Trump is My President.

For many people who were encouraged in such dualistic thinking by their pastors, then, the choice was obvious. Storming the U.S. Capitol and, as we now know, planning to abduct or harm lawmakers, was a fight for life, for morality—for God.

This is why it was not surprising to see a surfeit of Christian signs and symbols as rioters overwhelmed the barricades and burst through the doors of the Capitol: “Jesus Saves,” “God, Guns and Trump,” “You Need Jesus” and “Jesus is My Savior. Trump is My President.” Or why aides to Senator Mitch McConnell heard a woman praying outside their barricaded door, at the height of the panic, for the “evil of Congress to be brought to an end.”

The invasion of the U.S. Capitol was seen by many rioters not simply as a political act but a religious one, in great part thanks to the moral framework fostered by too many Christian leaders.

The invasion of the U.S. Capitol was seen by many rioters not simply as a political act but a religious one, in great part thanks to the moral framework fostered by too many Christian leaders. Christians in the mob probably did not consider themselves criminals as much as prophets. One journalist reported the scene: “‘Give it up if you believe in Jesus!’ a man yelled near me. People cheered. ‘Give it up if you believe in Donald Trump!’ Louder cheer.”

Those who broke windows, trampled on journalists, terrified legislators and destroyed property likely felt they were doing something holy. Why wouldn’t they? This was a fight against evil. After all, that is what a cardinal, a small number of bishops and many more priests, aligning with self-appointed social media champions of “real Catholicism,” had been telling them for months. They heard it from the pulpit, they read it in parish bulletins and they saw it on social media.

By their fruits

To be clear, there were obvious moral questions in this election: abortion, economic justice, racism, migrants and refugees, care for the poor, care for the environment. But one side focused primarily on the single issue of abortion, which became the litmus test for all moral decision making and the way to declare if a candidate or a party was evil.

The moral evaluation of candidates for public office is never that simple, even if the moral nature of some specific public policy positions is straightforward. The evaluation of candidates often does involve questions of good and evil, but they are questions about policies and prudential judgments about the effect of electing a candidate, not absolute rules and not summary condemnations of a candidate’s moral goodness.

An alarming number of Catholic clergy contributed to an environment that led to the fatal riots at the U.S. Capitol.

Thanks to many bishops and priests, however, those nuanced views, as well the rich tradition on the primacy of the formed conscience and the degrees of “moral cooperation” were lost; the lack of any real action against priests and bishops promoting false dichotomies meant that people assumed simplistic bromides were “church teaching”; and the ability of so many apocalyptic voices to command a public stage through a coordinated effort by the far-right media gave these views a bigger megaphone.

The mistake for which Catholic leaders should be corrected, the mistake for which the church now needs to repent, is not simply casting this election in terms of good and evil; it is pretending that real questions of good and evil could be simplified to the point where violent responses, even acts of domestic terrorism, become thinkable and then are carried out.

As such, an alarming number of Catholic clergy contributed to an environment that led to the fatal riots at the U.S. Capitol. Ironically, priests and bishops who count themselves as pro-life helped spawn a hate-filled environment that led to mayhem, violence and, ultimately, death.

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