Some were surprised to see Catholics back President Barack Obama, who held liberal views on social issues including abortion, after the group supported George W. Bush's reelection. Then, President Trump won the Catholic vote in 2016, in part because of huge support from white Catholics, a group that polls show has a less-than-favorable view of immigration.
Former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon thinks the Catholic Church's leadership is on the wrong side of the immigration battle.
They have been “unable to really, to come to grips with the problems in the church. They need illegal aliens. They need illegal aliens to fill the churches,” Bannon said in excerpts released from his "60 Minutes” interview set to air Sunday.
Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News and a Catholic himself, said a reason Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York opposed Trump’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals decision is because the church stands to benefit economically from a growing population of undocumented immigrants.
“That's — it's obvious on the face of it,” he said. “That's what — the entire Catholic bishops condemn him. … They have — they have an economic interest. They have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration.”
The comments were surprising and considered insensitive to many, given the church’s long history of serving immigrants and its prevalence in Latin America.
“Majority of Catholics under 30 are Latino. Bannon fears church he doesn't recognize, and a politics where whites don't control everything,” tweeted John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a center focused on faith “in the public square.”
This wasn't the first time a prominent Catholic pushed back on Trump's immigration policy. Dolan wrote about the problems with nativism soon after Trump's campaign launched in 2015. And in February 2016, Pope Francis shared his view of leaders focused on building walls, saying that worldview isn't rooted in the principles of Christ.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel,” he said.
But some polling suggests that Bannon isn't an outlier, and that many white Catholics disagree with the leader of their church on this issue.
Less than half of white Catholics (44 percent) believe immigrants strengthen the country, according to a 2015 Public Religion Research Institute poll. The same survey found that more than 4 in 10 white Catholics say immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values.
And Trump won most of those voters. The president, whose wife is Catholic, received the highest percentage of white Catholics in the past five elections with 60 percent. Nearly 7 in 10 Hispanic Catholics backed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, a Methodist who supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage and has liberal immigration views.
While the GOP may view this shift as good news, the Catholic Church could be at a real fork in the road when it comes to how it will approach illegal immigration in the future. Membership in the church is declining — at least when it comes to white Americans.
According to PRRI, 55 percent of U.S. Catholics are white and non-Hispanic. That number was nearly 90 percent 25 years ago. And with 52 percent of Catholics under 30 being Hispanic, those numbers will be changing much more significantly.
It appears that white Catholics have a couple of options given these trends. One of them is to come around to the idea that immigrants strengthen the United States and the church. Another is to double down on their current perspective, ignoring the pope's words and further embracing the gospel of Bannon.