Trump Creates a Schism in the Catholic Church

Trump has elevated a cadre of reactionaries and conspiracy theorists to rally white Catholics to his side, even if it tears apart the American church.



Frank Pavone was formerly a campaign adviser to Donald Trump and was ordered by the Church to vacate the position. Trump has made efforts to “embrace the fringe of American Catholicism,” dividing Catholics.


When people discuss Christian Trump voters, the focus is often on his die-hard Evangelical adherents. While Evangelicals are an important part of the Republican coalition, they should not cause onlookers to discount the importance of white Catholics to the GOP. Looking deeper into the Trump campaign’s outreach to this coveted demographic reveals an ongoing schism within the American Catholic Church.  

According to exit polls from 2016, Donald Trump won 60% of white Catholics’ votes, a demographic that has a powerful influence in crucial swing states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. 

Recent polling has been less kind, with one poll in June 2020 showing only 37% of white Catholics approve of Trump after the coronavirus pandemic and recent protests. Even if a majority plan to vote for Trump, as a July Pew Research poll showed, any decrease in support could have massive ramifications.

In order to try and shore up support, Trump has started to increasingly embrace the fringe of American Catholicism.

Trump has used this tactic before; in 2016 he enlisted the help of longtime pro-life activist Frank Pavone as a campaign adviser. Pavone has been a stalwart supporter of the president and his policies, even defending the administration’s family separation policy while many U.S. bishops denounced it. While Pavone has vacated his position in the Trump campaign under the order of church authorities, Trump has continued elevating divisive figures to positions of power within the American government.

One of the most well-known of these personalities is former Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S. Carlo Viganó, a papal ambassador, who called on Pope Francis to resign in 2018 after leveling unfounded allegations of coverups and deceit. 

Viganó continued on this trajectory in a letter sent to President Trump this May. In the letter, Viganó pitted Trump against what he called the “children of darkness.” This force of darkness, through control of the media and the “deep state,” was using the pandemic and protests to elect a candidate more favorable to their interests. The former Nuncio went on to rant against globalism, the New World Order and a false church that was subservient to the “Invisible Enemy.”

Taylor Marshall, a writer with a Ph.D. in philosophy who recently joined the Catholics for Trump coalition, has also joined Viganó in his pro-Trump crusade. Marshall was an uncontroversial author for several years before becoming associated with the anti-Pope Francis animus that has swept the ranks of conservative American Catholics. Through his YouTube video series and bestselling books like “Infiltration,” Marshall advanced the idea of a centuries-old plot aimed at destroying the church, with Pope Francis as the most recent assailant. 

You may be asking why these alliances are so unusual. After all, this is not the first time that a Republican candidate has embraced conservative Christians, a demographic the right has courted since Ronald Reagan

What makes this different is that Trump has stepped right into the middle of the fault line in the American church. In this widening gap, traditionalists like Viganó and Marshall are disagreeing with the Vatican on issues not only related to church doctrine but on politics as well.

This election has and will continue to deepen fissures across American society, and Catholics will not be left unscathed.

While issues like marriage and abortion rights were at the forefront for conservative Catholics for decades, that no longer seems to be the case. The Supreme Court has failed to make a dent in Roe v. Wade, no major pro-life legislation has become law and funding for Planned Parenthood has increased in the past four years.

What attracts these reactionary fringe Catholics is not life or liberty, but something far more insidious. Comb through Marshall’s online history and you’ll find warnings against creeping socialism, calls for Muslims to be forcefully converted and white nationalist Faith Goldy raving about immigration. Viganó has spent the last few months criticizing COVID-19 restrictions and Black Lives Matter as attacks against “the children of light.” 

This is the great irony of the traditionalist identity. While they portray themselves as the true keepers of the faith, they contradict Catholic social teaching at every opportunity. The church under Pope Francis and his predecessors, warts and all, has taught that addressing inequality and racism is necessary for a just society. Proclaiming a libertine business mogul to be the new Constantine is not part of the program.

This election has and will continue to deepen fissures across American society, and Catholics will not be left unscathed. Trump has shown his willingness to sow division, so creating a schism in the Catholic Church should be right in his wheelhouse.