President Biden – only the second Roman Catholic in US history elected to the nation’s highest political office – keeps a photo in the Oval Office of himself with Pope Francis.
There’s no doubt Biden can count on partnering with the progressive Pope as he reverses many Trump-era policies to tackle climate change and reform immigration.
But support within his own country’s Catholic Church seems more tenuous, and Biden has received a surprisingly hostile reception from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops under the leadership of Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez.
At the intersection of religion and politics, nowhere is the divide between conservatives and progressives in the Catholic Church deeper than in the United States, as Biden’s election reveals.
“It’s extraordinary,” said John K. White, professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, “that a Catholic president, instead of being congratulated [by the bishops] and saying that we will work together, while acknowledging the differences, that they have only deepened the schism.
The divide stems from many Church members‘ opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, while others see a broader interpretation of the sanctity of life, promoted by Francis, to include climate change, immigration and the fight against poverty.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the governing body of the Church in the United States, greeted Biden on inauguration day with a statement praising his “piety”. But he was keen to stress the new president’s support for reproductive rights.
“I must emphasize that our new president is committed to pursuing certain policies that would advance moral ills and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage and gender. “, said Gomez, president of the conference.
Gomez went on to reiterate that abortion remains the Bishops’ “top priority,” adding, “We cannot remain silent as nearly one million unborn lives are set aside in our country year after year by the ‘abortion”.
The unease within the conference about Biden was apparent shortly after his election. Following their annual meeting in late November, the bishops took the rare step of establishing a “task force” of their members to “navigate” the “complex and difficult situation” with Biden, Gomez told the time.
He did not describe specific actions the task force would take, but said abortion-tolerant policies promoted by a Catholic president presented a particular problem because “they create confusion among the faithful.”
Gomez was unavailable to comment for this article, his representatives said.
In the Vatican, the pope’s supporters were unhappy with Gomez’s statement. Francis responded by sending a message to Biden, reiterating the wholehearted support he has given the new president since shortly after his election.
Gomez, affiliated with the conservative Opus Dei sect, also faced opposition from several US bishops, who said he failed to get the statement passed by all conference members as it should be. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy indirectly criticized Gomez.
“Most importantly,” McElroy said in his own post-investiture statement, the U.S. bishops “should encourage our new president: by entering into a relationship of dialogue, not judgment; collaboration, not isolation; truth in charity, not harshness.
Contrary to Gomez’s skepticism about Biden, the conference hailed President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, despite his three marriages, an extramarital affair with a porn star and widely publicized comments about organ snatching women. genitals. (They later diverged on issues such as immigration.)
The right-wing branch of the church has enjoyed a warm relationship with the Trump administration. The wife of former GOP Chairman Newt Gingrich has been given the post of ambassador to the Holy See. Last year, Trump’s Secretary of State, Michael R. Pompeo, took the unusual step of criticizing the Vatican in an anti-Francis magazine just weeks before heading to Rome. (The pope would not meet Pompeo.)
The rift inside the church has been brewing for decades, involving liberal directives in the 1960s that later conservative popes – John Paul II and Benedict XVI – rescinded. Francis preached a return to grassroots progressive social activism and a more inclusive church. He raised bishops like the progressive Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the first black American to become a cardinal, but not those more to the right, like Gomez.
Biden’s election has brought the Catholic divide to the fore. The parish in Biden’s hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, has always administered communion to him, but some churches during the campaign refused. A few conservative Catholic leaders have openly raised the highly unlikely prospect of an excommunication for the 78-year-old president.
“This is an inflection point of tremendous significance” for the church, said George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Center for Ethics and Public Policy in Washington and a conservative biographer of the pope (now Saint) John Paul II. “This crystallizes a problem that has been building for years.”
He said Catholic politicians, including Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and California Governor Gavin Newsom, sacrificed their right to communion because of their support for abortion rights .
“It’s not about politics,” Weigel said in an interview. “It’s the integrity of the church.”
Weigel said abortion is different from other issues.
“Not all problems are equal,” he said. “It’s not climate change, immigration, or taxes. The sanctity of human life, from conception to natural death, is a non-negotiable part of Catholic self-understanding.
Others in the church, particularly in the United States, see the issue differently and more broadly.
“There are many areas where the bishops and the Biden administration are on the same page and could work together,” said Fr. Thomas Reese, a columnist for the progressive National Catholic Reporter and a veteran church commentator. “It would be a tragedy for the church, the administration and the United States if disagreement on some issues prevented them from working together on others.”
Biden’s views on abortion and related issues have shifted from opposition to tolerance and, some say, closer to the Democratic Party platform. Supporters, like Catholic University’s White, who co-chaired Catholics for Biden in last year’s campaign, say evolution is integral to inclusion and the broader manifestation of charity. catholic – to invite more believers “to the table”.
“Biden’s Catholic faith is at the core of who he is,” White said. “That’s how he was raised. These are the priests he knows. It’s not going to go away.
Times writer Sarah Parvini in Los Angeles contributed to this report.