The Catholic seminarians who gather for dinner every evening in the dining hall at The Athenaeum of Ohio would rather talk about something else.
Theology or philosophy. Sports. Music. The weather.
Anything, really, but the presidential election.
Yet there it is, every day, impossible to avoid. One candidate who embraces a stand on abortion rights that their Catholic faith considers “intrinsically evil,” and another whose words and actions go against centuries of church teachings on morality and human dignity.
So as they gather around the table, picking at their salads and sandwiches, these future priests struggle with the same question that millions of other American Catholics are asking around their dinner tables this election year.
What are you going to do?
“That’s what I hear, more than anything else,” said the Rev. David Endres, dean of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary at the Athenaeum, in Anderson Township. “They’re sometimes unsure of what would be the moral choice.”
This is a challenging election for many Americans, regardless of their faith. But for Catholics, who now make up more than one-fifth of the U.S. population, it poses fundamental questions about the intersection of their religious and political lives.
Catholicism has never fit neatly into one political ideology or party. The church swings to the right on abortion and “sanctity of life” issues, which it places above all others, and to the left on immigration, race relations and poverty.
Reconciling those views in the voting booth can be difficult in any year for Catholics, but it’s especially so this year.
“It’s a tough time,” said John Carr, director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. “Personally, I feel politically homeless.”
The problem, he said, is that both major-party candidates so often take positions faithful Catholics find offensive.
Democrat Hillary Clinton gets a black mark for her support of legal abortion and a national health care law that church leaders consider a threat to religious freedom.
Republican Donald Trump mocks the disabled, favors a religious test for Muslims, wants to build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants and has been accused of groping multiple women.
It’s a conundrum. And even the most serious and scholarly Catholics, like those wrestling with their choices in the seminary, have no easy answer.
“They’re both a wash, morally speaking,” said Alexander Witt, a seminarian who expects to become a priest next year. “They’re both terrible people.”
An election like no other
Not all voters with strong religious beliefs are struggling with their choices this year.
Polls show white evangelical voters, long a cornerstone of the Republican base, support Trump in larger numbers than they backed Mitt Romney in 2012. Pew found in July that 78% of evangelicals favored Trump over Clinton, and that 55% of all Protestants supported him.
Other, more recent, polls show an erosion of that support in the wake of Trump’s incendiary comments about women, but he still holds a significant lead among evangelicals.
Catholics, though, never have warmed to the GOP nominee. Pew found they backed Clinton 56% to 39% in July, and a Public Religion Research Institute poll this month showed roughly the same margin.
That’s a dramatic shift since the last presidential election, when Catholics closely reflected the general population and chose President Obama over Romney by just 2 percentage points. More surprising to some pollsters is that church-going Catholics, who generally align more closely to evangelicals, back Clinton by about the same margin as less devout Catholics.
So why is this year different?
In a word, Trump. He doesn’t behave like a traditional Republican, and that’s forced many Catholics to change the way they think about the race.
Trump’s harsh rhetoric on immigration doesn’t play well with Catholics raised in a faith that has historically embraced immigrants from Europe and, more recently, Latin America. His anti-Muslim remarks don't jibe with the church's commitment to religious freedom and his crude comments about women run counter to church teachings on human dignity.
Some Catholics say Trump's stance on those issues is in such conflict with Catholicism that even his opposition to abortion can't justify voting for him.
"This election can't be about a single issue," Sister Simone Campbell, director of the Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, wrote in a recent Enquirer column. "It cannot just be about protecting the unborn, but also about protecting immigrants, Muslims, women, children and people in poverty."
Catholics who strongly support the church's position on abortion say its importance cannot be minimized, as Campbell suggests. But they understand the frustration with Trump.
“It’s not just his newfound stance on the issues,” said Rich Leonardi, a conservative Catholic blogger from Cincinnati who is skeptical of Trump’s recent embrace of the pro-life movement. "It’s his erratic temperament, his bar-stool eruptions. That kind of temperament doesn’t bode well for his fitness for the presidency.”
Leonardi said he won’t vote for either candidate. “We’re stuck with a two-party system, but that doesn’t mean I have to play along,” he said.
Abortion draws some to Trump
Clinton presents challenges for Catholics, too, and none is larger than her support of legal abortion.
While the church abhors all sin, none is greater in the Catholic faith than the destruction of innocent life, either through abortion or euthanasia. These are intrinsic evils, according to the Vatican, and Catholics must oppose them.
“Life is at the top,” said Witt, the seminarian.
For that reason, Witt said, he’s likely to vote for Trump. He can’t stand the man, but he also can’t abide a supporter of abortion rights in the White House.
Abortion isn't Clinton's only problem with Catholics. She caught flak recently when WikiLeaks released hacked emails from Clinton campaign officials criticizing conservative Catholicism as “an amazing bastardization of the faith.”
The exchange upset Catholics like Bill Laverty and Rob Deubell, conservative Cincinnatians who are active in the church and staunch opponents of abortion.
Laverty, of Montgomery, and Deubell, of Loveland, both said they expect to vote for Trump, mainly in hopes of stopping Clinton. Neither is happy about it.
“It was not an easy choice for me, but I feel I’m making the right choice,” Deubell said.
Laverty is more blunt. “I’m likely to vote for Trump,” he said. “But I’m likely to have a barf bag or a clothes pin on my nose.”
Liberal Catholics also struggle with their choices. Tom Miele, of Covedale, cares deeply about social justice issues championed by the church and wants a president dedicated to helping the less fortunate.
He thought Bernie Sanders was best for the job, but he’s come around to Clinton. He’ll vote for her on Nov. 8, despite what he considers her too-cozy relationship with big banks and establishment politicians.
“I have to vote,” he said, somewhat forlornly. “It’s going to be Trump or Clinton, so I will go with Clinton.”
Staying involved, despite challenges
These are hardly ringing endorsements for either candidate, and Catholic bishops sense the uncertainty among their flock. They don’t endorse candidates, but they do give guidance on how to approach voting decisions, urging Catholics to focus on “the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable.”
Following that advice can be difficult, especially this year.
Influential Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Neb., acknowledged the challenge in September when he told Catholics it’s OK to sit out the presidential race altogether.
“No Catholic should feel obligated to vote for one candidate just to prevent the election of another,” he wrote.
Carr, a columnist for the Catholic magazine America, has taken a similar position in opinion pieces he’s written this year about the dilemma facing Catholics. One was titled, simply, “Bad Choices.”
But Carr isn’t giving up on politics and he hopes his fellow Catholics don’t give up, either.
“Politics is too important to be abandoned,” he said. “It’s supposed to be about the common good and protecting the weak, and it seems to be about everything but that. I hope our Catholic faith will call us to get involved.”
Duy Nguyen, a seminarian who'll become a priest next year, couldn’t agree more. He’s a naturalized citizen from Vietnam and this election is his first chance to vote.
He and his family are struggling about what to do, as Catholics, as immigrants, as people who care about the country they now call home.
All Nguyen knows for certain is he will cast a ballot. And when he does, he said, he will do his best to heed the instruction of Catholic bishops who urge the faithful to follow their conscience and embrace “goodness and truth.”
Nguyen believes that’s possible, even in an election like this one.
“This is a very exciting time to be an American citizen,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s very difficult.”