Thursday, January 21, 2021
The Washington Post reports that Joseph Biden, the second-ever Roman Catholic U.S. president, was greeted on his Inauguration Day with contrasting messages from his church: A warm blessing from Pope Francis — and a statement by the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops saying that Biden “will advance moral evils,” including contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage.
The statement by Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez immediately set off a debate among U.S. bishops, who, like U.S. Catholics, are bitterly divided on the direction of their extensive denomination and its entanglement with partisan politics. Those divisions are coming to a head in the figure of Biden, who makes it clear with his weekly churchgoing, his frequent references to Catholic teachings and culture, and his use of Catholic symbols that he is indeed a part of the church.
The current dispute over how to contend with the new president features dueling comments from leading bishops.
On one hand, Archbishop Gomez stated:
In a time of growing and aggressive secularism in American culture, when religious believers face many challenges, it will be refreshing to engage with a President who clearly understands, in a deep and personal way, the importance of religious faith and institutions. I must point out that our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.
Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, rejects this thinking:
Today, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an ill-considered statement on the day of President Biden’s inauguration. Aside from the fact that there is seemingly no precedent for doing so, the statement, critical of President Biden came as a surprise to many bishops, who received it just hours before it was released. The internal institutional failures involved must be addressed, and I look forward to contributing to all efforts to that end, so that, inspired by the Gospel, we can build up the unity of the Church, and together take up the work of healing our nation in this moment of crisis.
The Catholic Bishops have in the past taken a more positive and collaborative tone towards new presidents. For example, in 2016, the conference put out a statement congratulating Donald Trump, saying it “looks forward to working with President-elect Trump to protect human life from its most vulnerable beginning to its natural end.”
San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy said he was “echoing Pope Francis’ message to President Biden and calling for dialogue, not judgment; collaboration, not isolation; truth in charity, not harshness. … It is a pathway of reconciliation that places the healing of our society ahead of any specific policy issue, in the recognition that repairing the soul of our country is the pre-requisite for any sustainable effort to advance the common good. … Most importantly of all, Pope Francis’ message to President Biden fundamentally speaks to him in his humanity, a man of Catholic faith striving to serve his nation and his God.”
On Wednesday morning, President Biden received a message from the Pope: “Under your leadership, may the American people continue to draw strength from the lofty political, ethical and religious values that have inspired the nation since its founding,” said Francis, who had called Biden on Nov. 12 to offer his congratulations and to discuss working together on issues including poverty, climate change and integrating immigrants and refugees.
Thursday morning, the USCCB put out four statements — an unusually busy morning for the Conference — praising actions Biden took the day before, including lifting the Muslim ban, and fortifying the “Dreamers” program that allows young immigrants to stay in the U.S. for work and school.
Prof. Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University