I guess some of us American Catholics ought to be happy we were not treated to the spectacle of President Donald Trump addressing the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast last week.
That was not because Catholic leaders were ashamed to participate in a public event with a man who has bullied Muslims, groped women, and issued threats against immigrants and refugees.
Nope. The organizers of the breakfast invited him. But Trump had a conflict, and could not even call in to the breakfast, as previous presidents had done. So his second-in-command, former Catholic-turned-evangelical Vice President Mike Pence spoke in his stead.
The prayer breakfast is not an official church event, but it draws Catholic clergy and lay people to Washington, D.C. and considerable media attention. While billed as nonpartisan, the breakfast has been far friendlier to Republican leaders than Democrats. Republican President George W. Bush was invited three times. When they held posts of influence, other invitees included the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA).
The only Democrat ever asked to speak at the breakfast over its 13 years of existence was then-Rep. Bart Stupak, (MI) whose Stupak amendment to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) nearly sank the entire bill. Stupak pushed through the amendment to make absolutely clear that the ACA would not pay for coverage of abortion.
True to form, Pence’s speech was mostly about what the White House has done to deny women of all faiths access to abortion and contraception.
That is not surprising since the event focuses almost exclusively on promoting a narrow view of Catholicism that values life before birth and close to death and seems to care less about the needs of people during all of the time in between. It also ignores the larger social justice mandate of the gospels.
True to form, Pence’s speech was mostly about what the White House has done to deny women of all faiths access to abortion and contraception. Since that is the obsession of many of the Catholic bishops in this country, his message played well.
Pence got a standing ovation from hundreds of Catholics at the event when he took credit for casting the deciding vote in the Senate to permit states to deny federal funds to Planned Parenthood and other providers of legal abortion services.
Pence praised the Little Sisters of the Poor for what many would consider a wasteful and feckless legal battle by the order against the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. He insisted that during the Trump administration, “life is winning in America.”
The church leaders in attendance seemed unconcerned that the White House is not exactly a friend when it comes to the church’s other positions. Pope Francis devoted an entire encyclical to our moral obligation to protect the earth – one of only two encyclicals he’s written during his papacy. The Pope knows climate change is real and has urged nations to protect the poor and vulnerable from its effects.
The Pope spoke of an “ecological crisis” and the urgency of finding a solution to the “environmental degradation” caused by mankind’s poor stewardship of God’s creation.
The Trump-Pence administration, on the other hand, stuck a thumb in the eye of a world taking steps to address that crisis, when Trump announced that the U.S. would not be honoring its commitments forged in the 2015 Paris climate deal.
One wonders if any of the Catholic leaders in the room appreciated the irony in Pence praising the “steady advance of science that continues to illuminate more and more when life begins,” while advancing the agenda of a president who disdains the warnings of scientists about our reckless disregard for the fate of the planet.
This White House also takes positions in direct opposition to the views of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on immigration. Indeed, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, USCCB vice president, has called the crackdown on undocumented migrants “cruel” and a policy that “doesn’t respect … the dignity of the human person, the unity of family.”
The Catholic bishops have also strongly criticized administration efforts to temporarily halt the admission of Syrian refugees into this country and to deny entry to travelers from predominantly Muslim countries.
One can only hope that the words of another speaker made an equal impression on the breakfast audience.
Mother Olga of the Sacred Heart, born and raised in Iraq, founded her own religious order in the U.S. in 2011. In her prepared remarks, she recalled the seven years she visited prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, reaching even those who were in solitary confinement or kept underground. She offered food, medication and other humanitarian aid to the inmates, imprisoned during the reign of Saddam Hussein. Nearly all those prisoners were Muslims. She did this work, she said, because of her love of God and of God’s children.
In 2001, the sister traveled to the U.S. to finish her studies in theology. Ultimately, she became a Catholic convert and a U.S. citizen. Since then, she has received many awards for her service to her faith and to society. Given her history providing aid and comfort to Muslim prisoners in Iraq, one wonders whether Pence’s boss would have even let her in.
Celia Viggo Wexler is the author of Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope (Rowman & Littlefield).