As outrage over lewd comments piles up, Trump struggles among Catholics

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jim Young, Reuters

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Hours before the Oct. 9 presidential debate began, former
New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani invoked St. Augustine of Hippo on a Sunday morning
political news show to defend the man he was supporting for president.

“Ever read ‘The Confessions’ of St. Augustine?” Giuliani asked
John Dickerson, the host of “Face the Nation,” referring to the autobiographical
book about St. Augustine’s sinful past and his subsequent conversion. “Men can
change, people can change.”

Hours later, Donald Trump, the embattled Republican presidential
nominee he was defending, was defiant in St. Louis during the second of three presidential
debates against Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Trump spent the weekend dealing
with public backlash, including watching members of his own party withdraw endorsements
for his presidency following the release of various video and audio recordings
where he is heard making lewd comments about women. In one of the recordings, Trump,
who had been married for months to his third wife at the time of the incident, speaks
of his intention to have sex with a different married woman.

Giuliani, who said that as a Catholic he understood contrition
and the resolve to do better after a person has done something wrong, seemed
like the lone political voice defending Trump. Republican House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, a
Catholic, said he was “sickened” by Trump’s comments and withdrew his
invitation from their first event together in Wisconsin and said a day after
the debate that he “won’t defend” his party’s candidate.

Others said they felt they had no other option but to
stick with Trump.

“I think his comments are utterly disgusting, but I have no
other choice than to vote for him,” said Gail Buckley, who attended a meeting of the Catholic
Leadership Conference in Denver in early October, where Trump sent a letter to Catholics
gathered there saying: “I will be there for you. I will stand with you. I will
fight for you” on pro-life and other issues.

Buckley, who is president of the leadership conference as well as president and founder of Catholic Scripture Study
International, said she asked Clinton to also address the group, but her
campaign declined the invitation. Buckley said she does not trust Clinton and “would never
support a candidate who promotes abortion and same-sex marriage and threatens
my religious liberty.”

Joseph Cella, founder of the National Catholic Prayer
Breakfast, who serves as a liaison between a Catholic advisory group and the Trump/Pence ticket, said he found
what Trump said “repulsive and undignified and cannot be condoned or defended,”
but he also said that the Republicans were the only candidates who would “defend
the right to life” as well as religious freedom.

In the debate, which was sprinkled with assaults
from both sides, Trump reached out to those like Buckley and Cella, saying: “I
am looking to appoint judges very much in the mold of Justice Scalia,” when the candidates
were asked about their plans for nominating a Supreme Court justice to replace
the conservative Catholic Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February. It is a
task that the next president will have to undertake and one that is high in the
mind of many voters.

Clinton answered: “I want a Supreme Court that will
stick with Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose and I want a Supreme Court
that will stick with marriage equality.”

But Catholics, like much of the nation, remain divided as to
what matters in this election. In June, the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, released results of a survey that revealed, as CEO Robert P. Jones put
it, “white (non-Hispanic) Catholic and Latino Catholics are in different
universes” when it comes to issues that are important to them in the
presidential election. One of the most important ones for Latino Catholics was
immigration, an area that Clinton used to attack Trump in the debate.

“It’s not only women and it’s not only this video that
raises questions about his fitness to be our president,” she said. “Because he
has also targeted immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, people with
disabilities, POWs, Muslims, and so many others.”

Even before the debate and the airing of the video and
audio, Trump seemed to be struggling with Catholics for their vote, according to a PRRI poll
released in late August. The poll showed him down 23 points, 55-32, against

The letter Trump sent out to Catholic
Leadership Conference members gathered
in Denver in early October seemed “like a desperate Hail Mary pass,” said
John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy
group in Washington.

“Trump is struggling with Catholic voters for a reason:
Anti-immigrant nativism, crude sexism and making an idol of wealth are not
Gospel values,” Gehring said to Catholic News Service in an email interview. “Pope
Francis reminds us that building a culture of life isn’t about a single issue and
that everything is connected. Catholics also want to hear about creating an
economy of inclusion, dignity for refugees and addressing the way climate
change disproportionately hurts the poor. These are central life issues.” said a day before the debate that even
though it didn’t endorse Trump, it defended a lot of his positions. In
an Oct. 8 statement on its website it said that “in the recording, he brags about sexually
assaulting women. Christians should not waste their breath defending them. The
mere fact that this conversation is occurring in the context of a presidential
campaign impoverishes us all.”

Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service, who is executive director of the Catholic social justice lobbying organization Network, said in a statement: “We urge the
candidates to step out of the gutter and focus on the pressing needs of our

There wasn’t opportunity for real conversation during the
debate and it was not centered on the “needs of the people,” Sister Campbell
said, urging the candidates to present plans for governing that all can weigh.

“Secretary Clinton has articulated a detailed strategy.
Network is still waiting for Mr. Trump’s plan,” she said.

Christopher J. Hale, executive director for Washington’s
Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, said the debate was “an absolute
embarrassment to those of us who believe that politics can and must serve the
common good.”

The people of the United States deserve better than what
they got in the second debate and during this presidential campaign season, he
said, expressing hope that the final debate in Nevada Oct. 19 will be better.

“While we’re stuck the vanity politics of small things, the
nation is looking for serious dialogue about the issues that matter,” Hale said.
“We heard very little towards that end. I hope the final debate will discuss a
broader range of critical issues such as the dignity of life, the scandal of
poverty, comprehensive immigration reform, and care for God’s creation, among

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Follow Guidos on Twitter: @CNS_Rhina. Julie Asher contributed to this report.

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