On Wednesday, Donald Trump visited the Vatican and all we got were those odd, vaguely Addams Family photos: black-swathed Ivanka and Melania with their long veils and long faces; Donald grinning a grin that managed to be dopey, yet chilling; Jared doing his usual mug shot for GQ; and last but not least unsettling, Pope Francis looking uncharacteristically sour and flattened, as if the Father and the Son had conspired to suck the Holy Spirit straight out of him.
No, wait, the photos weren’t all we got: there was also came the commentary-cum-hilarity about the epic awkwardness that was obvious at the photo op and safe to assume about the two men’s private meeting. That was no surprise, given the shots they took at each other during the campaign and the depth of their differences on climate change, poverty, immigration and more.
For American political purposes, though, the biggest issue of all went largely unremarked, and it is one on which the Holy Father and the unholy president most definitely agree: abortion.
The Francis certainly does not seem to like The Donald. But an awful lot of American Catholics do like him — or at least they did, as of November. Catholics were absolutely key to electing Trump and they will be absolutely key to re-electing him, or not. In fact, Catholics will be key to electing U.S. presidents long after Trump exits the stage, whether he does so tomorrow or in January 2025. For all the attention that evangelical Christians perennially garner as a voting bloc, they are concentrated in the deeply red south, which means that they don’t get courted past the primaries. Once the major party nominees are settled upon, the big religious vote that is up for grabs is that of Catholics, who dominate in such places as the Rust Belt. Crucially, insofar as they vote on moral or religious grounds, Catholics tend to be much more liberal than their evangelical counterparts on one economic and social issue after another — except, oftentimes, when it comes to abortion.
Not, of course, that Catholics march in lockstep on this or any other issue. Pro-choice advocates love to say this, and it’s true: Not all Catholics oppose abortion rights, and even those who do often weigh up all the issues and vote for pro-choice candidates anyway. A majority of Catholics voted twice for the pro-choice Barack Obama, and of course Hillary Clinton tapped a proud product of the Jesuits, Tim Kaine, as her running mate.
Here, though, is something that is also true: There are millions of American Catholics who are deeply, morally troubled by the words and deeds of the Republican Party in general, and the Trump administration in particular, toward immigrants, toward Muslims, toward the poor and the working class, and as regards the environment. Many have absolutely no problem with government policies that buck the Church’s teachings on birth control, as a majority of American Catholics themselves do. Virtually none of these folks could be counted as natural political allies of those Protestants on the religious right — not all Protestants on the religious right, to be sure, but a notable subgroup — who openly describe Catholicism as a cult and the Pope as a puppet of Satan. In short, these Catholics should fit right in to the Democratic Party. Yet, if they oppose or even favor limitations on abortion — including limitations that would amount to less than those existent in many states already — the Democratic Party — yes, the party that is down two-thirds of the statehouses, both houses of Congress, and the White House — is actually engaged in a real debate over whether or not they should be allowed in.
Astonishingly, significant powers in the party are adamant that the answer is “no.” Pro-choice advocates in particular seem to sense an invisible but alarming problem of too many Americans flocking to the Democratic fold, upon whose gatekeepers the utmost vigilance must thus be urged. Just in May, NARAL Pro-Choice America actually reprimanded “Unity” tourists Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison for rallying with Heath Mello, a thirty-something Democratic candidate for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska, because he was pro-life. It is hard to imagine what reproductive liberty was served by easing the re-election of Omaha’s Republican mayor, and easy to imagine what Democratic aims could be stifled by other versions of this playing out in multiple, more consequential settings.
Finding himself at the start of a truly vertical electoral climb, freshly-minted DNC chair Tom Perez should not also find himself stuck in a life-or-choice tar pit, but there he's been since day one: first declaring that the party cannot demand perfect fealty to its platform on every issue…only to turn around and state that yes, it must demand fealty (“speak with one voice”) on the choice issue…the fallout from which then obliged him to set up a meeting where he could hear the “voice” of Democrats for Life. Meanwhile, red- and purple-state Democrats, such as Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, warn and warn against the self-defeating folly of demanding that candidates and office holders who are 80 or 90 per cent on board with the Democratic agenda — and often 60 or 70 per cent on board with the Democratic reproductive-rights agenda — should be thrown out for not being on board enough.
Look, I get the purists' argument: women’s rights are inextricable from reproductive rights, and (much less convincingly) reproductive rights which fall short of being absolute do not count as reproductive rights at all.
That, of course, is a point of view to which people are absolutely entitled, and for which its holders deserve credit, at least, for putting principle before politics. Way, way before, in fact, when you think about who swing voters are and where they live. Democrats have every right to tell all but the very most liberal Catholics to go jump in a lake. But they should not kid themselves: no matter how this Pope may scowl at this president, that’s a real problem, because the lake in question just might be Michigan. Or Erie, Superior, Huron, Ontario…any major swing-state body of water will do.