One of the first things President Joe Biden did before taking his presidential oath last week was to attend Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, site of the funeral of the nation’s first Roman Catholic president, John F. Kennedy.
It seemed a fitting moment for a lifelong politician who has anchored his private life and public service to his Catholic faith. For a man who carries rosary beads in his pocket and quotes the saints, Biden’s faith is far from a political prop.
But unlike the more clear-cut Christian, and indeed, evangelical parameters that have guided past presidents, Biden’s relationship with the Catholic community remains far from cohesive, and in fact, is fractured in places.
For conservative Catholics, the president’s liberal and progressive political agenda has alienated him from the more conservative ranks of his faith, and some say, has even disqualified him as a member of the 1.4 billion strong religious fraternity.
“We don’t consider him a very good Catholic,” said Tom Kane, president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians of Cumberland County, a Catholic organization for men. “Not by his example of how he’s lived, the things he’s done, his pro-abortion views, which are way out there. We are praying he changes some of those stances.”
Biden is only the second Catholic president in the White House after Kennedy. His presidency comes at a dramatically different time from his predecessor, who downplayed his faith. Biden faces sharp scrutiny, not so much from the nation’s religious electorate, but from factions of the Catholic Church.
Indeed the fault lines fall on one singular issue: abortion. Biden supports abortion rights and has vowed to ensure Roe v. Wade remains “the law of the land.” The president has pledged to eliminate the Hyde amendment, which prevents the government from using tax dollars to directly reimburse providers for abortion procedures.
In the wake of Biden’s inaugural, the most powerful Catholic group in the nation offered a reconciling message seeking to continue to work with the White House on issues such as economic and racial justice, immigration, the environment and criminal justice reform.
But Archbishop Jose Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, warned that some of Biden’s policies and views on abortion struck at the heart of Catholicism.
“(O)ur 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,” Gomez said in a written statement.
Abortion remains ‘preeminent priority’
Bishop Ronald Gainer, head of the Diocese of Harrisburg, said abortion remains the “preeminent priority” of the Roman Catholic Church.
Gainer said he looked forward to working with the Biden administration on issues related to immigration, the elimination of the death penalty, and economic and health care justice. But Gainer stressed that the president’s policies on abortion, his definition of marriage and religious liberty contradicted Catholic teachings and posed a potential hurdle.
“As the chief shepherd and pastor for the Catholics in the Diocese of Harrisburg, I have a duty to proclaim the Gospel in all its truth, especially when those truths run contrary to society and our culture,” Gainer said. “The Church has long opposed policies supporting abortion and we will continue to do so. I will unrelentingly speak the truths of the Gospel and the preeminent teaching of our Church regarding the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.”
Those sentiments contrast with the message Pope Francis extended in a letter to the president on his installation. The pope offered his prayers “that Almighty God will grant you wisdom and strength in the exercise of your high office.”
Francis told the president that he prayed his leadership would inspire the American people.
“I pray that your decisions will be guided by a concern for building a society marked by authentic justice and freedom, together with unfailing respect for the rights and dignity of every person, especially the poor, the vulnerable and those who have no voice,” the pope wrote.
In fact, Biden’s views on abortion align closely with that of the majority of the American public, and indeed, Catholics.
The majority of U.S. Catholics break with the church on the issue, believing, as do the majority of adults in the country, that abortion should be legal, at least in some cases. That too is the general viewpoint of most Catholic legislators, including U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Catholic and Pennsylvania Democrat.
Biden and First Lady Jill Biden may have been regulars at Sunday Mass in their Delaware parish, and just days after inauguration, attended Sunday Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, but that’s not enough to reconcile him with his conservative brethren.
“He uses the Catholic faith to his own advantage,” said Tom Aumen, a deacon with the Holy Name Society in Hanover, York County. “He had a visit with Pope Francis and this was to, in my opinion, build his own Catholicity. ‘Oh look at me. I ‘m in with Pope Francis. See he welcomes me.’ Yes that is true as we would welcome anybody into our lives but that doesn’t mean we agree with what their lives encompass and stand for. I think it’s a charade that he would call himself Catholic as other Catholics do and yet not abide by the sacred teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Aumen notes that the Holy Name Society, an organization for Catholic men who pledge to uphold church teachings, added that Biden would be disqualified from membership.
“Mr. Biden would not be suitable as a Holy Name member,” Aumen said. “He doesn’t practice the sacred teachings of the church.”
No doubt, the president’s faith raises the stakes on issues where there is fundamental disagreement — such as abortion and other hot-button issues on gender ideology and religious freedom, some of which he has already addressed in executive orders.
“This does not sit well with most Catholics and certainly not with the Catholic bishops, who worry that the president’s conciliatory tone isn’t matched by his divisive policy action,” said Stephen White, a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
“Not to put too fine a point on it, they worry that President Biden will use his Catholic faith to justify policies that the Catholic Church holds to be unequivocally unjust and evil. The bishops for their part, have made clear that they’re willing to work together on common causes, but aren’t going to budge on others. Policy disagreements are one thing; religious quarrels are another. Experience shows that the latter can sometimes be the bitterest of all.”
Faith offers common ground
Biden does have significant support from some factions of the Catholic community.
Groups like Catholics for Biden campaigned for the president’s platform on economic justice, the dignity of work, the importance of affordable, quality health care for all and the pursuit of a humane immigration policy. All are issues that align the president with the priorities that have been pushed by the head of the church, Pope Francis.
Karen Keane, the national president of the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, the largest Irish Catholic Women’s organization in America, said the group is proud that the nation has another Roman Catholic president.
“While we take no position on the political elections, we are thrilled to have a man of faith in the Office of the U.S. President,” Keane said. “We are confident that President Biden will bring honesty, compassion, and empathy to the many issues facing our nation, especially in the social justice arena. We are hopeful that President Biden will help bring peace in Northern Ireland and unity to the island of Ireland.”
Chris Borick, political science professor and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, doesn’t rule out Biden’s ability to bridge divides, especially with conservative Catholics, the majority of whom voted for Donald Trump.
“It gives him at least some common ground to reach out to in that really important part of the electorate,” said Borick of Catholic voters, who at times have been pivotal swing voters.
“I think it’s a place where he can maybe find some common ground. He carries around rosary beads. He’s authentic and fits the bill. You see him at Mass and while certainly that by itself does not overcome the differences that people may feel on the right, it certainly does at least give some space where there might be a bit of comfort that can help those conversations take place. I would not minimize it. I think it’s really part of who he is.”
Still, Borick stresses that the power of that singular issue – abortion – should not be underestimated.
“For the hardest pro-life core, he strayed from the core connector they most identify with,” he said. “But there are a lot of Catholics that might think that pro-life is not necessarily the one issue. For them that’s where I think Biden could have some reach, at least the potential.”
Biden has wasted no time in fulfilling some of his campaign promises.
He has signed executive orders restoring rights and protections for the LGBTQ community, and indeed, transgender members of the military; and he marked the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion, with a recommitment to codifying its tenets, as well as expand health care access and reproductive rights for women here and worldwide.
On Thursday, on the eve of the annual March for Life rally marking the 1973 Roe vs. Wade SCOTUS decision, the president issued directives that aim to repeal at least two Trump administration directives that restricted women’s reproductive rights. The annual March for Life, which annually draws thousands of participants to the nation’s capital, this year is being held virtually online due to the pandemic.
Biden is seeking to lift the ban on foreign aid to groups that provide or refer patients for abortion services; and was expected to repeal Trump era funding restrictions on clinics that provide abortion services. Biden seeks to allow those clinics to receive federal family planning grants through Title X. The majority of those providers serve women who are uninsured or low-income.
Some devout Catholics warn that the faithful should take care underlining divisions rather than focusing on the unifying force of their faith.
“We start with the notion that there is a progressive church and a conservative church,” said Randy Lee, a professor of law at Widener University in Harrisburg and member of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament.
“I think we first have to begin with there’s one holy, Catholic and apostolic church. For me that’s the starting point. There really aren’t progressive Catholics or conservative Catholics. If you need to divide yourself between conservative and progressive, you have missed the point. If you go to Paul’s epistle to the early church, he goes out and says there’s not a church of Paul or Peter. There is a church of Jesus Christ. That’s the starting point. I don’t see it as a divided church. I see it as one church, as one body.”
For Lee, the crucial conversation needs to go beyond Biden’s politics or faith.
“For me the discussion is not about Joe Biden. It’s about where the church is in America today,” Lee said. “Hopefully the church sees itself as a single church which may have body parts with different perspectives but at the end of the day the feet reckon that what is good for the feet is good for the body. That’s what we as Catholics need to strive for. Understand that personal will and personal perspective is not as important as seeking the mind, imagination and eyes of Christ.”
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