Today Trump announced his Catholic advisory board, with Joseph Cella as chief liaison to Catholic affairs.
Joseph Cella is the founder of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, an organization that “was established in 2004 in response to Saint John Paul II’s call for a New Evangelization.”
Back in 2009, Cella caused a buzz for not inviting newly elected President Obama to the event. But when pressed on the issue Cella announced, “We would welcome him. He could have breakfast and pray with us, and engage in fellowship. But by no means would we grant him a platform to address the breakfast.”
Cella explained that he would not allow Obama to address the group because of a policy that forbade anyone to speak at the breakfast if not “in agreement” with the “core social teachings” of the church. And apparently, his organization decided that President Obama was not. Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, however, was special guest speaker that year.
This begs the question: In an attempt to convince American Catholics to vote for Donald Trump in November, will Cella make the case that Trump is in alignment with the social teachings of the church?
Earlier this year, National Review published a letter, “An Appeal to Our Fellow Catholics: And to all men and women of good will,” that attempted to dissuade Republican Catholics from voting for Trump in the primaries:
“We urge our fellow Catholics and all our fellow citizens to consider, however, that there are candidates for the Republican nomination who are far more likely than Mr. Trump to address these concerns [which were aforementioned in the article: right to life, religious freedom, rights of conscience, rebuilding marriage culture, subsidiarity and the principle of limited constitutional government], and who do not exhibit his vulgarity, oafishness, shocking ignorance, and—we do not hesitate to use the word—demagoguery.”
This letter was signed by many, one of whom was Joseph Cella.
The problem with Cella advising the Trump Campaign on “Catholic affairs” is twofold. First is that Cella, under the moral banner of the Catholic church, argued that Trump’s “appeals to racial and ethnic fears and prejudice are offensive to any genuinely Catholic sensibility.” But now, under that same banner, he is first in line under Trump’s command in political outreach to American Catholics.
Secondly, Cella’s model of church, theology of ministry, and understanding of Catholic social teaching is a reductionist interpretation of Pope Francis’ and the broader Catholic church’s comprehensive views.
Cella represents an exclusionary, sectarian, and bigoted form of American Catholicism.
Trump-Cella’s Bad Faith
The first problem, the problem of a Trump-Cella alliance, is that in that alliance Cella is misappropriating the Catholic church in bad faith. He cannot be in allegiance with the Catholic church and the Trump Campaign at the same time. “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (Matthew 6:24).”
While the Trump-Cella alliance is a problem for all Catholics to denounce, it is not a problem for the American church per se. It is now a matter of personal sin. Cella can decide to promote Donald Trump for president as an individual Catholic, but he does not have moral authority to speak for the Catholic church in his new role. There can be no legitimate liaison of “Catholic affairs” in the Trump Campaign.
Cella made a moral oath against voting for Donald Trump, and he did so based on one of the core social teachings of the church—i.e. the social sin of racism. If Trump wins the election, will he be given a platform at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast?
In defending the Trump Campaign and its sinful, morally bankrupt political tactics that seeks to pit American society against Mexicans, Muslims, Black Americans, Jewish Americans, et al. Cella has renounced his Christian faith in favor of a bad faith that believes that some of us are worthy and equal human beings and some of us are not.
In no way does Cella promote the Trump Campaign for the sake of the church or does it align with Catholic social teaching. If Cella chooses to defend the Trump Campaign and Trump’s demagoguery, he cannot claim to be a Catholic in good faith, or a spokesperson for Catholics in American society, and much less for the American Catholic church.
Trump-Cella’s Vision of Church
The second problem, the problem of Cella’s model of church and theology of ministry is a problem for the American church. Cella’s model of church is a model that Pope Francis is in the process of dismantling.
In A Church With Open Doors (CWOD), Stephen Bevans, SVD argues that Pope Francis’ ecclesiology is oriented “toward a missionary ecclesiology,” one that goes beyond the “new evangelization” of Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II:
“This move from the new evangelization to a more comprehensive missionary church is a highly significant one, both ecclesiologically and missiologically. The new evangelization emerged out of the concern of two European popes in the context of a radically secularized Europe, on the one hand, and a church that, to their minds, had lost the clarity of its commitment to the content of the faith, on the other. Pope Francis’s call for a truly missionary church comes out of a totally different context, and reflects not a European interest, but that of the majority of the world…It does not deny the vision of the new evangelization but takes the vision further to make it more comprehensive and more relevant for the entire church (CWOD, p.12).”
Cella’s organization, the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, was founded on a model of the Catholic church promoted by Pope Francis’ predecessors, aka the “new evangelization.” This model of church stresses exclusivist theologies over against secular society in general, and post-modern culture in particular. It promotes a smaller church, one that is purified of what these new evangelists call “choice Catholicism” and “moral relativism.” Cella and his new evangelist compatriots George Weigel and Robert George take a very narrow, rule-based approach to moral theology—unforgiving and spiritually stifling in its “fervor”—and have done so for two reasons. First, in an attempt to return the church to its pre-Vatican II, neo-scholastic form. Secondly, to reinterpret Catholic social teaching to align with the Republican party’s neoliberal public policy agenda.
While Francis does not deny the vision of the new evangelization in toto, and in respect of the continuity and discontinuity of the Catholic intellectual tradition, he does theologically put the “new evangelization” movement in its ecclesial place. He takes “evangelization” out of their sectarian context of doctrinal purity tests, fire and brimstone moral judgment, and ecclesial practices of exclusion, and places it into a radically inclusionary, spiritually creative, and Gospel-oriented vision of the church:
“We see then that the task of evangelization operates within the limits of language and of circumstances. It constantly seeks to communicate more effectively the truth of the Gospel in a specific context, without renouncing the truth, the goodness and the light which it can bring whenever perfection is not possible. A missionary heart is aware of these limits and makes itself “weak with the weak… everything for everyone” (1 Cor 9:22). It never closes itself off, never retreats into its own security, never opts for rigidity and defensiveness. It realizes that it has to grow in its own understanding of the Gospel and in discerning the paths of the Spirit, and so it always does what good it can, even if in the process, its shoes get soiled by the mud of the street (Evangelii Gaudium (EG), par. 45).”
Francis’ Vision of Church
The difference between Cella’s and Pope Francis’ vision of the Catholic church is that Cella’s church is a church that preaches a theology of rules in spite of the world, and Francis’ church is a church that preaches the Good News in celebration of the world.
Francis’ church is a missionary church—wherever it is and whenever it is—spreading the Gospel truth that we are all universally worthy and equal human beings, and that means there are political consequences—specifically, saying “No to an economy of exclusion.”
“Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape (EG, par. 53)
The Catholic church and its social teachings do not align with the Republican party’s neoliberal public policy agenda and its belief in the God of the Market. But because Trump says that he is against abortion, it gives Cella and the new evangelists cover to endorse him and to bring Republican Catholics along.
If we can’t get out of the cul-du-sac of Cella’s model of church and theology of ministry we will not be able to communicate the Gospel message of Christ today or ever—not that Christ’s Spirit won’t be present in the world, but Christ is not present in a reactionary community that practices the radical exclusions of others in His name.
And so we return to our question: In an attempt to convince American Catholics to vote for Donald Trump in November, will Cella make the case that Trump is in alignment with the Catholic church and its social teachings?
The Perversion of the “New Evangelization” in American Catholicism
The model of the “new evangelization” in the American church has been embedded in right-wing politics for quite some time now, but it is being exposed for what it really is in a Trump-Cella alliance.
Rather than a movement to spread Jesus’ teachings and Good News to the poor, the new evangelists’ God is a God of the Market wrapped up in the trappings of the Christian faith.
Donald Trump is the icon of the Vulgar “I” in American society today, an icon that is anti-Christ in every way: hostile to foreigners, abusive to women, uncharitable to the poor, mocking of the disabled. And when Robert George and George Weigel pointed out in their letter that others’ sympathy for Trump was understandable because he “speaks to issues of legitimate and genuine concern: wage stagnation, grossly incompetent governance, profligate governmental spending, the breakdown of immigration law, inept foreign policy, stifling “political correctness…,” they speak not in the advancement of the social teachings of the church. They do so in its perversion.
The Trump-Cella alliance is the beginning of the end for the new evangelization model of the American church today. George and Weigel admitted in their appeal that, “in recent decades, the Republican party has been a vehicle…for promoting causes at the center of Catholic social concern in the United States…” And this gets to the heart of the problem for the institution of the church and its “unholy alliance” with a political platform that under the banner of “life” is dismantling the 20th century social infrastructure that was put in place to protect those persons on the margins of our society.
The new evangelization movement in America today is at the service of the Republican party’s economy of exclusion and that is what’s driving a 21st century corruption of Catholic social teaching—and the movement uses “religious freedom” and “abortion” as cover.
There is no “religious freedom” problem today. The Obama administration bent over backward to protect the Catholic church’s religious liberties, granting exclusions for the church in the Affordable Care Act, and despite the bishops being abusive towards the administration in the process.
And there wasn’t a Catholic political obsession with abortion until the 1970’s, when Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie and company propagandized abortion as a “Catholic social concern,” and did so for the very purpose of manipulating Democratic Catholics to vote for an economic agenda that protects not those whom are economically marginalized, but the wealthy and elite.
Before Weyrich and Viguerie’s divide and conquer plan was cemented into the fabric of the American public policy debate, the Catholic voting block believed in a consistent life ethic, found in Cardinal Joseph Bernadin’s “seamless garment” theory, and did so while still proudly voting Democratic.
Let Us Be Shameful
So let us be shameful of a Trump-Cella alliance and its supposed “new evangelization.” This alliance reinforces the image of the American Catholic church as an accomplice in right-wing politics in American society today.
Let us be shameful if we allow a Trump-Cella alliance to displace a comprehensive understanding of the church and its social teachings and replace it with a single issue obsession with abortion, and in so doing turn a blind eye to an economy that kills.
Today, the Catholic church is being used as an instrument of an American authoritarianism that believes not in the social teachings of the church and the common good of society as a whole, but in the invisible hand of the God of the Market who decides whom gets to be included in the economy and whom does not.
Trump will do whatever it takes to win in November, including the perversion and manipulation of the social teachings of the Catholic church.
And he’ll not just have the advice of Cella on how to do it, but also our old friend Richard Viguerie will be serving on the board. No doubt, Viguerie will be whispering Catholic “nothings” in his ear too.