FOR A LOT of conservatives, all of Donald Trump's bragging about behavior that boils down to sexual assault can be waved away by repeating this simple mantra: Bill Clinton.
If absolutely necessary, there's a follow-up at the ready, too: Supreme Court.
But the many Catholic voters I know who say they're sticking with Trump because he's pro-life are kidding themselves. Not only because of his mutable and mixed-up thoughts on abortion rights, but because the "pro-life" label is supposed to sum up a whole attitude of respect for all people at all stages.
Can a term that implies "womb to tomb" care for the most vulnerable even conceivably apply to a man who guffawed to Howard Stern that when a woman reaches decrepitude at age 35, "it's check-out time?" Or who has referred to his own daughter as a "piece of ass?"
After hearing Trump reduce half of the human race to subhuman status in a riff that he sees as "locker-room banter," some of the Catholic groups and leaders who'd given him the benefit of the doubt started peeling away.
Alongside pieces headlined, "Tim Kaine's radical roots in Honduras" and "Six reasons Catholics can't trust Hillary Clinton," the conservative Catholic advocacy group CatholicVote.org posted a statement calling on the Republican National Committee to remove Trump if he won't step aside.
"Newly released comments by Donald Trump leaked from an audio recording in 2005 are disgusting and simply indefensible," it says. "In the recording, he brags about sexually assaulting women. Christians should not waste their breath defending them. The mere fact that this conversation is occurring in the context of a presidential campaign impoverishes us all."
That does not, of course, mean that they'll back Clinton, whose abortion views are a stopper, but that they now see both major party options as unacceptable.
After hearing Trump gloat that he gets away with grabbing women's genitals because he's a star, Patricia McGuire, the president of Trinity Washington University, a Catholic women's college in Washington, D.C., wrote that she could no longer refrain from answering the GOP nominee's "repeated offenses against human dignity" and "lack of fundamental respect and charity toward human beings that is so fundamental to understanding and upholding the right to life."
She called on American bishops to follow suit, though not one has done so. (Asked straight up about Trump's comments, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, who is considered a progressive and will be made a cardinal next month, ventured only this: "I have a deep faith in the moral fiber of the American people to respond appropriately. That's all I'm going to say. Thank you.")
At risk of their own reputations, Trump's team of high-profile pro-life Catholic advisers are so far sticking with a man who, at age 59, thought bragging about forcing himself on women was highly entertaining. They include Joseph Cella, founder of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, who told the Jesuit-run America Magazine that, though Trump's comments on the tape are indefensible, "Donald Trump and Mike Pence remain the only candidates in this election who will . . . defend the right to life."
The only priest on Trump's advisory council, pro-life activist Rev. Frank Pavone, told America he had not watched the tapes but was still supporting and advising the nominee, too, because "we are electing someone to do a specific job, namely, to appoint the right kinds of judges and to sign the right kinds of legislation."
The Trump team of Catholic advisers also includes several Pennsylvanians - former Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland Faith Whittlesey and Notre Dame alum and Republican Rep. Mike Kelly, of Butler.
To them, I recommend a rereading of Pope Francis' beautiful encyclical Laudato Si, which on every page maps out the interconnectedness of all living things and all kinds of violence: "In the end," he writes, "a world of exacerbated consumption is at the same time a world which mistreats life in all its forms."
Or, they could listen to Fordham theology professor Charles Camosy, who notes that "even if we limit our concern to abortion, we need to consider that Trump is a notorious liar who will say anything to garner support. He used to be "pro-choice in every respect" - even when it comes to the infanticide of partial-birth abortion - and now he's going to appoint "pro-life justices?"
In Sunday night's debate, Clinton talked about her support for abortion rights, and, in response, Trump "made sure to talk about gun rights, but he failed to mention abortion even once. In fact, he never brings up the topic in public. Ever." Camosy's conclusion is that "Trump is still 'pro-choice in every respect' and taking traditional pro-life groups for a ride."
They've been on that kind of ride for decades - and were only open to Trump in the first place as a result. But at some point, it's time to admit, as CatholicVote.org has, that in doing so, "the good many hoped to achieve, in spite of Trump's many well-known flaws, is also now in doubt."
Melinda Henneberger is a longtime political reporter and editor in Washington.