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How Pope Francis’s encyclical could shake up the US election

They make up one of the most important constituencies of American voters, so it’s no wonder that Catholics have been specifically courted by both Joe Biden and Donald Trump during the US presidential campaign. Four years ago, according to the Pew Research Center, 52% of them voted for Trump, compared with 44% for Hillary Clinton. And with Biden himself being Catholic, you might expect substantial numbers of the tens of millions of American Catholics who possess a vote to consider switching sides to one of their own.

But now this Catholic vote has got a whole lot more interesting. This weekend, Pope Francis travelled to Assisi to honour Saint Francis, the saint he most admires, for his dedication to the poor, and to sign his new encyclical. Encyclicals are the key teaching documents of popes in which they often focus on global issues, not just the internal concerns of the church. In 2015, Francis produced Laudato Si’, on the environment, where he put all his moral weight behind those advocating the need to take action against climate breakdown. This time round his new document, Fratelli Tutti, published on Sunday, describes a post-pandemic world, and the need for greater fraternity and solidarity. Its message means the pope has waded right into some of the key issues dominating the US presidential election.

Like British monarchs, popes are supposed to be above party political matters, and Pope Francis has certainly not done anything as crass as name names in his encyclical, although he’s not above overt criticism. Ahead of the 2016 election, he described Trump’s plan to thwart migrants by building a wall between the US and Mexico as “not Christian”.

In this weekend’s document he makes it clear that populism and nationalism – of the kind Trump typifies – are damaging, warning that “a concept of popular and national unity influenced by various ideologies is creating new forms of selfishness and a loss of the social sense under the guise of defending national interests”.

With Catholics making up such a large proportion of voters, about 20%, both Democratic and Republican campaigners are keen to appeal to them. Trump’s camp stresses abortion and matters of religious liberty, while Biden has often spoken of the way in which his own Catholic faith has helped him in dark times, and he’s not averse to making the personal political. “The next Republican that tells me I’m not religious, I’m going to shove my rosary beads down their throat,” the Cincinnati Enquirer once reported him as saying. His team stresses Catholic teaching that focuses on the poor and the vulnerable.

So the Democrats may well be cheered by the pope’s warning in Fratelli Tutti that lack of concern for the poor and vulnerable “can hide behind a populism that exploits them demagogically for its own purposes, or a liberalism that serves the economic interests of the powerful”, noting that in both cases, “it becomes difficult to envisage an open world that makes room for everyone, including the most vulnerable, and shows respect for different cultures”.

It’s also clear that Francis has seen through the neoliberal experiment and its alleged trickle-down benefits that have only served to create a class of the super-rich and left behind the people who are most in need – such as people with disabilities and, indeed, those who rely on state-provided education and healthcare. “If a society is governed primarily by the criteria of market freedom and efficiency, there is no place for such persons, and fraternity will remain just another vague ideal,” he warns.

For Francis, fraternity is much more than an ideal, but a necessity if the world is to become a better place. But while his idealism sets Trump followers’ teeth on edge, he can also make Democrats on the left uncomfortable, too. There is no advocacy here of big government and welfare state narratives either. Instead, he is focused on the local and the small. And at the heart of his teaching in this document and all his papal pronouncements over the past seven years has been a strong stance on the right to life that takes him all the way from completely rejecting capital punishment to vetoing abortion, too.

Fratelli Tutti will make for awkward reading for Trump, and his gun-toting, pro-electric chair supporters, including prominent Catholic attorney general William Barr who reintroduced federal executions for the first time since 2003. Yet it will also be tricky for Biden and the large constituency of Catholic Democrats who have compromised on abortion. In that sense Fratelli Tutti cannot be classed as giving a wholesale papal imprimatur to Biden. But for those Catholics still thinking of casting their ballot for Trump, it should inspire them to question what Pope Francis would surely say is the most precious thing they possess: their conscience. This clarion call from across the Atlantic could well be an election clincher.

  • Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of the Catholic weekly, the Tablet

  • Who’ll win the race for the White House? Join Guardian journalists Jonathan Freedland, Daniel Strauss, Lauren Gambino and Richard Wolffe for an online Guardian Live event, on Tuesday 20 October, 7pm BST (2pm EST). Book tickets here

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