Washington D.C., Apr 3, 2020 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- The “Catholics for Trump” coalition was officially launched on Thursday evening in an online broadcast.
The coalition, led by American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and political consultant Mary Matalin, says it aims to “energize” the Catholic community in the U.S. to re-elect Donald Trump.
The 2020 Catholics for Trump group said it aims to focus on its view that the president’s policies model and reflect Catholic social teaching.
“The best president we’ve ever had for Catholics and Catholic values—and by that I mean those are American values—has been President Trump,” Matalin said.
The 2020 presidential election is predicted to be a tight race, and recent polling shows Catholics split over Trump’s reelection.
In February, polling conducted by RealClear Opinion Research for EWTN News asked Catholics about their plans for the 2020 election.
Among all Catholics surveyed, Trump had a 47% net approval rating and 46% said they would certainly or likely vote for him in November. 46% of Catholics also said they would not vote for Trump, or it was unlikely they would do so.
Those numbers broke down differently amongst various demographics. Among Catholics who said they accept all the Church’s teachings, 63% strongly or somewhat approved of Trump’s job as president and 59% said they would certainly vote for him in November.
Among Hispanic Catholics, Trump had a 29% net approval rating, and 34% said they would certainly or likely vote for him in November.
In the lead-up to his reelection campaign, the president has been widely praised by some Catholics, especially those edified by his appearance at the 2020 March for Life – the first time a president has appeared at the event, and those who praise the administration’s initiatives on issues related to religious liberty and education. Other Catholics, however, have criticized Trump’s policy positions on immigration, and his personal comportment, which many characterize as divisive.
The U.S. bishops have issued both statements of criticism and praise for the Trump administration.
The president has had a rocky relationship with Catholics from the start of his candidacy in the 2016 election. When Pope Francis made a February, 2016 visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump called the pope “political” and a “pawn” of the Mexican government, and talked of building a border wall.
During an inflight news conference on his trip back to Rome, Pope Francis said that “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.”
While Trump drew support from some prominent Catholics during his 2016 campaign, especially those advocating for pro-life policies, others, including some prominent conservative Catholics, were critical of the Trump campaign.
In March 2016, as Trump’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate gained momentum, prominent Catholic intellectuals Robert George and George Weigel wrote “an appeal to our fellow Catholics,” arguing that Trump “is manifestly unfit to be President of the United States.” They cited the “vulgarity” of his campaign, “appeals to racial and ethnic fears and prejudice,” and a lack of confidence in his pro-life and pro-religious freedom credentials.
Although initial reports claimed that Trump won the Catholic vote in 2016, a 2020 RealClear Opinion Research poll sponsored by EWTN found that, of the Catholics surveyed nationwide, Hillary Clinton won the Catholic vote in 2016 with 48% to Trump’s 46%.
Just after Trump was elected president in November 2016, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles noted the fears of immigrants at a prayer service, saying that “men and women are worried and anxious, thinking about where they can run and hide. This is happening tonight, in America.” He pledged to “our brothers and sisters who are undocumented – we will never leave you alone.”
U.S. bishops, including Gomez, have continued to raise concern about the administration’s immigration policy, though in 2018, Gomez did praise an executive order from the White House calling for an end to family separation policies, and called for bipartisan congressional action on immigration reform.
In 2017 Pope Francis received Trump in a Vatican audience.
According to a May 24, 2017 Vatican communique, Pope Francis and Trump expressed satisfaction “for the good existing bilateral relations between the Holy See and the United States of America, as well as the joint commitment in favor of life, and freedom of worship and conscience.”
Earlier this year, Vice President Mike Pence also met with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
On Thursday, Catholics for Trump leaders promised to make the group a “movement,” and to demonstrate that Trump is upholding Catholic social teaching by preventing “activist” judges in the courts, protecting religious institutions from coercive government mandates, upholding pro-life policies, and strengthening the economy.
“I think the most important thing we can do is to be a vehicle to deliver the truth,” Matt Schlapp said, to share “how Catholics should adjudicate the issues that our society faces.”
In an era when many are weary of “fake news,” Schlapp said, “let’s make sure that we’re a place where people can quickly find the facts and figure out what’s going on.”
One of the group’s priorities will be to emphasize Trump’s leadership during the global COVID-19 pandemic, leaders said.
“President Trump does talk about hope,” Mercedes Schlapp said on Thursday.
Fr. Frank Pavone, founder of Priests for Life and a co-chair of the Trump 2020 campaign’s pro-life coalition, is also a member of the Catholics for Trump advisory board.
Pavone said on Thursday’s broadcast that “this coalition is going to be truly a movement where Catholics rise up and say, ‘hey look, everything that the Church has been saying, we’re seeing it unfold before our eyes, not like magic, but with strong effort and united effort under this president.’”
“Thank God he’s the one leading us through this,” Fr. Pavone said, in reference to the pandemic.
Trump is bringing together various federal agencies, the private sector, and state and localities, the priest said, and “is articulating what we’re all feeling” right now
In contrast, Pavone said, Democrats “keep attacking and keep complaining and keep criticizing and keep lying,” Pavone said.
“But the President is setting exactly the right tone. He’s not ignoring how serious the problem is. Very much the opposite. He’s leading in responding to it.”
Pavone is one of two clerics on the board of Catholics for Trump, the other being Deacon Keith Fournier, a married permanent deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Va.
The priest’s campaigning work has previously drawn scrutiny. During the 2016 election campaign, Pavone served as a member of a Catholic advisory group for Trump, and posted a video in which he asked for votes for Trump while standing behind an altar on which he had laid the body of an aborted baby.
At the time, Bishop Patrick Zurek of Pavone’s home Diocese of Amarillo said the stunt was “against the dignity of human life,” and that he would investigate Pavone’s actions. The results of that investigation have not been announced.
Canon law provides that clerics “are not to have an active part in political parties” unless their bishop judges that “the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.”
CNA asked the Diocese of Amarillo if his active role in the president’s reelection campaign had been authorized by the bishop. No response was received by the time of press.
Trump has protected the right to life, Pavone said, but “is protecting the strength of our military,” the “right to work, and the “economy and the free market from the threat of socialism” and from “unfair trade practices,” and is also protecting “borders from criminal aliens.”
All of these, Pavone said, are Catholic values.
The coalition leaders have especially emphasized the president’s pro-life credientials.
In 2016, Trump’s campaign announced the launch of a pro-life advisory board, headed by Marjorie Dannenfelser who is also president of the Susan B. Anthony List. Dannenfelser is co-chairing the Trump 2020 campaign’s pro-life coalition with Fr. Pavone, and is also a member of the Catholics for Trump advisory board.
Trump made four specific pro-life promises in his 2016 campaign letter to pro-lifers: that he would nominate “pro-life justices” to the Supreme Court, sign the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act into law, strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding “as long as they continue to perform abortions,” and codify the Hyde Amendment in law. The Hyde Amendment bars taxpayer funding of elective abortions, and is passed each year as a budget rider. Trump promised to make it permanent law.
Of the four promises, Trump has not has not codified the Hyde Amendment as law, nor signed a pain-capable bill, which failed to pass both chambers of Congress before Republicans lost the House in the 2018 elections.
The administration has strengthened protections against taxpayer funding of abortion providers in Title X family planning funds, and in overseas global health assistance. Because a measure to defund Planned Parenthood failed to pass the Republican-led Senate in 2018, Trump has not completely divested Planned Parenthood and abortion providers of federal funding.
The 2019 Protect Life Rule clarified that Title X recipients could not refer for abortions as a method of family planning, nor could they co-locate with abortion clinics. Planned Parenthood announced in August it would leave the program rather than comply with the new regulations.
The administration has reinstated the Mexico City Policy’s ban on funding of abortion promoters and providers overseas, and expanded it to include $8.8 billion in global health assistance.
Trump nominated two justices to the Supreme Court who were praised by Dannenfelser and other pro-life leaders, although no major abortion case has yet been decided by the two new justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
The current Supreme Court term was slated to feature the first significant abortion case at the Court since 2016, Louisiana’s safety regulations of abortion clinics. However, the court’s schedule is expected to be significantly altered in the coming weeks due to the new coronavirus.