Lexington (KY) Bishop Questions Catholic Support of Donald Trump: He’s Brutally Vilified

Readings for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JER 1:4-5, 17-19; PS 7:1-6, 15-17; I COR 12:31-13:13; LK 4:21-30

Last week, the bishop of Lexington, Kentucky, profoundly sharpened the recent controversy involving a student from Covington Catholic High School who confronted a Native American elder after this year’s pro-life march in Washington, D.C.

Writing an op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Bishop John Stowe attempted to deepen the entire conversation. He suggested changing it from superficial wrangling about the apparent disrespect the student displayed to a discussion of whether or not Catholics can support the current occupant of the White House and still be true to their faith.

Bishop Stowe said “no.” It’s a matter of faith, he said.

By taking that position, the Lexington bishop created what I would call a much-needed Dietrich Bonhoeffer moment for the church at a time when Mr. Trump exhibits traits and policies reminiscent of Adolf Hitler during his rise to power in the 1930s. (In the name of their faith, Bonhoeffer and members of his Confessing Church separated themselves from German Christians who supported der Fuhrer.)

The bishop’s words also incurred the wrath of Catholic Trump supporters much as Jesus in today’s Gospel selection sparked anger in his own hometown when he called his neighbors’ faith into question.

Let me explain.

First, recall the context of the bishop’s words. Then connect them to our reading and finally to Bonhoeffer and his church of resistance.  

As for context, a video of the stand-off between the high school student, Nick Sandman and the Native American, Nathan Phillips, had just gone viral. Initial viewings led many to condemn the student’s apparent disrespect.

Then, Sandman’s parents hired a P.R. firm to spin his side of the story. As a result, public commentary quickly changed from blaming the adolescent for his apparently offensive smirk. It centered instead on whose version of the story was correct. Was the student (as the PR firm put it) merely smiling in an attempt to deescalate a threatening situation? Or was he making fun of the Native elder by placing his grin inches from the old man’s face?

In an op-ed published in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Bishop Stowe reframed the debate by adopting the prophetic tack I just mentioned. He focused on the fact that the young student and many of his companions were wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats. That’s what the bishop found incompatible with Catholic faith and its comprehensive approach to life-issues.

He wrote:   

“Without engaging the discussion about the context of the viral video or placing the blame entirely on these adolescents, it astonishes me that any students participating in a pro-life activity on behalf of their school and their Catholic faith could be wearing apparel sporting the slogans of a president who denigrates the lives of immigrants, refugees and people from countries that he describes with indecent words and haphazardly endangers with life-threatening policies.”

In other words, Bishop Stowe was broadening the concept of being “pro-life” – the reason many Catholics back President Trump – to question that support itself. Catholic faith, the bishop implied, cannot tolerate Trump’s policies on immigration, refugees or other words or actions that disrespect Global South countries and endanger life (think capital punishment, drone assassinations, bombings, and illegal wars). Such behavior offends core Catholic beliefs about the inviolable sanctity of human life.

Specifically in reference to abortion, the Lexington bishop added:

“As the leader of the Catholic Church in the 50 counties of Central and Eastern Kentucky . . . I believe that U.S. Catholics must take a look at how our support of the fundamental right to life has become separated from the even more basic truth of the dignity of each human person. . .  While the church’s opposition to abortion has been steadfast, it has become a stand-alone issue for many and has become disconnected to other issues of human dignity.”

Still referencing the abortion issue, Bishop Stowe concluded:

“The pro-life movement claims that it wants more than the policy change of making abortion illegal but aims to make it unthinkable. That would require deep changes in society and policies that would support those who find it difficult to afford children. The association of our young people with racist acts and a politics of hate must also become unthinkable.”

Notice how these words unabashedly connect President Trump with racism and policies that embody hatred. They also recognize that many women are driven to abortion by government policies that make unplanned pregnancies problematic.

Now, that brings me to this Sunday’s Gospel reading and to Jesus’ words that “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” I make the connection because dozens of people chose to comment very harshly on the bishop’s op-ed. Instead of dealing with the more comprehensive understanding of the phrase “pro-life,” they called Bishop Stowe vile names, brought up the pedophilia issue, and defended Donald Trump as God’s servant. I was surprised that some of the on-line language was actually permitted by the Herald-Leader’s editors.

It was like what happened to Jesus in today’s reading. There the Master himself is pilloried by his neighbors in Nazareth for challenging (like Bishop Stowe) their narrow religious prejudices. When Jesus reminds the people from Nazareth that God cares as much about Syrians and Lebanese as about Jews, they actually try to murder him.

As I said, that proved the truth of his saying that “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” After all, prophets are those who speak for God. They connect God’s word to events of the day. And that’s what John Stowe did in his op-ed. He made the connection not only between the teaching of Jesus on the one hand and the event in Washington on the other. Echoing Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his Confessing Church, he also used the occasion to denounce Catholic support for latter-day fascism.

In similar circumstances 85 years ago, Bonhoeffer and the German Confessing Church courageously published their famous Barmen Declaration. It held that no one professing to follow Jesus could possibly accept Hitler as their Fuhrer; only Christ could hold that position.

In response, both Protestants and Catholics denounced Bonhoeffer and the others as traitors. Pope Pius XII would even persist in endorsing Hitler as “an indispensable bulwark against the Russians.”

The words of Bishop Stowe seem intent on preventing Catholics in his diocese from recommitting a similar error.

As a long-time Kentuckian and member of the loyal opposition within the Catholic Church, I’m proud of his courage. It’s time for Catholics and the rest of us to take Bishop Stowe’s words seriously.

Simply put, people of faith cannot support Donald Trump and still be authentic followers of Jesus. We must do all we can to frustrate Trump’s policies and see that he is not elected to a second term.

Yes, Bishop Stowe is correct: it’s a matter of faith!