The president and the pew
Joe Biden’s pro-abortion policies are driving wedges between leaders of the Roman Catholic Church
Earlier this spring, when the archbishop of San Francisco published a pastoral letter on the same day as the Roman Catholic feast of St. Joseph the Worker, he likely had at least one particular Catholic in mind: Joseph Biden, the president of the United States.
U.S. bishops were a few weeks away from debating whether to draft a document about Communion that could include guidelines suggesting whether local bishops should consider withholding Communion from pro-abortion Catholics—particularly those in prominent public positions, such as President Biden.
Some viewed the debate as a hostile attempt to make the Catholic sacrament a political football, with conservative bishops leading the offense against a more moderate team eager to stay out of politics. Others saw it as a pastoral dilemma impossible to separate from a political controversy with spiritual implications.
In his letter to parishioners, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone called abortion “gravely evil” and said pastors have a responsibility to challenge any prominent Catholic official who promotes it. He said the clergy also has an obligation to assure millions of watching Catholics that the church takes seriously its command to “care for the least of these” by publicly defending the unborn.
In late June, U.S. bishops voted overwhelmingly to draft a document with more teaching on Communion that could include guidelines for pro-abortion politicians.
What that means for the nation’s second Catholic president is a question for local bishops to decide. But the ongoing debate spotlights deepening divisions among Catholics and draws attention to the intense pressures pro-abortion groups exert on Democratic politicians to toe an increasingly stark line. The debate also shows Catholic leaders grappling with something new: a Catholic president rapidly promoting chunks of public policy that conflict with Catholic teaching while still remaining devoted to active participation in the Catholic Church.
Even as the bishops debated via videoconference in June, a gay pride flag flew outside the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican in Rome—a public display green-lighted by the Biden administration. “We’ve never had a situation like this,” said Bishop Liam Carey of Baker, Ore. “Where the executive is a Catholic president who is opposed to the teaching of the church.”
MOST SUNDAYS, Biden doesn’t look opposed to church.
Arriving for Mass in a motorcade is unusual for most Catholics, but a Secret Service detail often whisks the president from the White House to a church aisle, where he waits in line for Communion like an ordinary parishioner.
Growing up in a Catholic family, Biden says he briefly considered entering the priesthood. (“Girls got in the way,” he’s quipped.) Last fall, during the Democratic National Convention, organizers devoted the last evening to highlighting Biden’s religious background.
In October, his campaign spent seven figures on three television and radio ads to target religious voters. One spot showed Biden reading from Psalm 30: “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.” He credits his Catholic faith with helping him through the loss of his first wife and baby daughter to a car accident in 1972 and his 46-year-old son, Beau, to cancer in 2015.
In 2005, when he was contemplating a second run for the presidency, Biden bristled at claims that the Democratic Party wasn’t a party of faith. “The next Republican that tells me that I’m not religious—I’m going to shove my rosary beads down their throat,” Biden told The Cincinnati Enquirer.
But he’s also acknowledged, “I’m as much a cultural Catholic as I am a theological Catholic.”
“My idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion,” he wrote in a 2008 memoir. “It’s not so much the Bible, the Beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, or the prayers I learned. It’s the culture.”
For some bishops, that’s part of the tension: A pro-life culture in the Catholic Church is rooted in the Bible’s pro-life teaching. It’s difficult to separate the two, even for political considerations.
Still, Biden has said that his Catholic faith has shaped his views about abortion. After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of legalized abortion in 1973, Biden told the Washingtonian he thought Roe v. Wade went too far: “When it comes to issues like abortion, amnesty, and acid, I’m about as liberal as your grandmother. … I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.”
In 1982, from his seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to allow states to overturn Roe v. Wade. “I’m probably a victim, or a product, however you want to phrase it, of my background,” he said. (The legislation didn’t advance to the full Senate, and Biden voted against the measure the next year.)
In 1987, Biden chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and opposed President Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. A year earlier, Biden said he’d probably vote for him. The change came as activists erupted in opposition to Bork, after Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., declared: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back alley abortions [and] blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters.”
As a Catholic senator, Biden said he personally opposed abortion but supported legal access to it. Pro-abortion groups eventually gave him high marks for his voting record, but he also had limits. For decades, Biden supported the Hyde Amendment—a provision that bans federal funding for most abortions. In 1994, he was emphatic: “Those of us who are opposed to abortions should not be compelled to pay for them.”
In 2019, Biden still maintained that position, even after the Democratic Party called for the repeal of Hyde in its 2016 platform. But pressure intensified as he contemplated a presidential bid. In March of that year, Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told The New York Times: “Joe Biden is trying to carve out a space for himself as the middle, moderate candidate, and he’s going to have to really get with the times and understand that standing with abortion rights is the middle, moderate position.”
Biden announced his bid for the Democratic nomination in April. On June 5, 2019, his campaign confirmed Biden still supported Hyde. That same day, his Democratic opponents pounced with a barrage of tweets, all denouncing Hyde. Planned Parenthood urged him to reconsider.
Symone Sanders, a Biden adviser, told The Atlantic she confronted Biden, arguing that Hyde makes it more difficult for low-income women to get abortions. Patti Solis Doyle, the 2008 campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, told the Times: “I’m not sure how sustainable it is for Joe Biden to continue to support the Hyde Amendment. … Politically, it’s a significant problem for him.”
The next day, June 6, 2019, Biden seemed conflicted, even as he shifted. “I make no apologies for my last position, and I make no apologies for what I’m about to say,” he told a crowd in Atlanta.
Biden no longer supported Hyde.
IT’S A PRESSURE Dan Lipinski knows well.
The former Democratic congressman from Illinois first won election to the U.S. House in 2005 and joined a handful of other pro-life Democratic lawmakers. The Catholic congressman watched those ranks dwindle to nearly none over the next 15 years.
Lipinski rankled fellow Democrats by refusing to vote for the Affordable Care Act in 2010, in part because it didn’t include a guarantee that federal funds wouldn’t be used to pay for abortions. In 2018, two years after the Democratic Party had abandoned its support for the Hyde Amendment, Lipinski narrowly won his primary race for reelection against pro-abortion opponent Marie Newman.
In 2020, he narrowly lost.
A month before the primary election, pro-abortion groups NARAL and Planned Parenthood announced they would join a handful of other organizations in a final $1.4 million effort to defeat Lipinski. The announcement called him an ally of Republicans who want to “ban abortion and punish women.”
“I think it made the difference,” Lipinski says.
For Planned Parenthood, the effort was a fraction of the $45 million the group’s political advocacy arm announced it would spend to elect pro-abortion candidates in the 2020 elections. NARAL announced it would spend $34.7 million. EMILY’s List declared a $20 million campaign to elect pro-abortion, Democratic women.
The Susan B. Anthony List announced a $52 million effort to elect pro-life lawmakers in 2020, but pro-abortion groups’ massive funding for Democratic candidates creates a daunting climate for any pro-life Democrat considering federal office—or for Democratic politicians willing to block taxpayer funding of abortion.
“I thought it was important to have a pro-life voice in the Democratic Party,” says Lipinski. “And obviously the other side thought it was important to get rid of me.” He sees the same dynamic at work in activists’ insistence that Democrats drop Hyde—a legislative provision that used to be bipartisan. He said he was “gravely disappointed” to see Biden back down.
On the morning after his defeat, Lipinski stood in his campaign headquarters behind a podium with a sign reading “Re-elect Dan.” He congratulated his opponent and told reporters he didn’t regret remaining pro-life. “To stand in solidarity with the vulnerable is to become vulnerable,” he said. “But there is no higher calling.”
IF BIDEN’S PRO-HYDE position made him vulnerable to the demands of abortion advocates before he agreed to relent, his abortion advocacy in the White House makes him vulnerable to the scrutiny of Catholic bishops grappling with a president and a parishioner.
The only other Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, assured skeptical Protestants during his 1960 campaign that he wouldn’t take orders from the pope regarding matters of public policy. Biden has said he embraces that approach.
But massive shifts in American law and culture have intertwined politics and religion in ways perhaps unforeseen in 1960. When Biden became the second Catholic president in U.S. history, he took office after the legalization of abortion and gay marriage—practices Catholic teaching denounces.
Still, he’s not the first Catholic politician to support both. Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential run sparked debate, but Catholic bishops ultimately agreed local bishops should determine whether to exclude particular parishioners from Communion.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) produced a document saying it would counsel Catholic public officials that “acting consistently to support abortion on demand risks making them cooperators in evil in a public manner.”
The bishops warned that such a risk could cause a political figure to create “scandal”—a term the Catholic catechism describes as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” Francis Beckwith, a Catholic scholar at Baylor University, says the idea of scandal is equivalent to the Biblical warning against “making your brother stumble.”
For a Catholic president, that’s a lot of brothers.
If the high visibility of Biden’s office brings angst to some bishops, so do his policies. Two days after Biden’s inauguration, the White House released a statement on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, calling for Congress to codify the pro-abortion decision into federal law.
The next week he repealed the Mexico City policy that kept federal dollars from funding international organizations that support abortion. The administration proposed changing a Title X rule that prevented family planning dollars from funding abortion businesses.
In April, the administration at least temporarily lifted a restriction requiring women to obtain abortion pills in person instead of by mail. For his secretary of Health and Human Services, Biden tapped Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general who filed charges against pro-life activist David Daleiden and joined a lawsuit opposed to the Catholic group Little Sisters of the Poor during a legal battle for conscience protections.
The president has pushed for passage of the Equality Act, legislation that would gut the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—a bill signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton that provides a legal recourse for religious liberty claims.
And in March, the debate over excluding the 45-year-old Hyde Amendment turned into reality: Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act—without the provision that aims to prevent taxpayer dollars from funding abortions.
THE FLURRY of pro-abortion policy came as bishops in the United States were making plans for their summer meeting and were deciding whether to discuss drafting a document to explain the meaning and importance of the Eucharist in Catholic life.
The bishops had been mulling the idea since at least 2019, when a Pew Research poll indicated nearly 70 percent of self-identified Catholics do not believe the bread and wine used during Mass become the literal body and blood of Jesus—the Catholic doctrine known as transubstantiation.
The poll found most Catholics who don’t believe in transubstantiation didn’t even know that was the church’s teaching.
Bishops began considering how to amplify Catholic teaching, and some proposed including a discussion of Catholic public officials and Communion. In April, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., told the Associated Press he envisioned a document that would make clear that Biden and other Catholic public figures with similar viewpoints should not present themselves for Communion.
Naumann—chairman of the USCCB’s committee on pro-life activities—repeated the concern at the June meeting: “This is a Catholic president that is doing the most aggressive things we have ever seen in terms of this attack on life when it’s most innocent.”
Other bishops urged caution. Bishop Robert Coerver of Lubbock, Texas, questioned whether electoral politics motivated the discussion: “I can’t help but wonder if the years 2022 and 2024 might be part of the rush.”
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego warned that endorsing “public policy–based Eucharistic exclusion” would “invite all the political animosities that so tragically divide our nation into the very heart of the Eucharistic celebration.”
Beckwith, the Catholic scholar from Baylor, says there’s certainly a political element in the discussions surrounding abortion: “But it’s not merely a political issue. … You’re talking here about the question of who and who is not a member of the human community.”
In 2019, the bishops published a letter on “faithful citizenship” that declared: “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives it destroys.”
That may explain why the bishops have focused on the issue of abortion, when Biden and other Catholic politicians have embraced other positions and policies contrary to Catholic teaching: In 2016, Biden officiated a wedding of two men at his vice presidential residence in Washington, D.C. It’s an area where Biden politically and personally supports a position contrary to Catholic teaching.
While Biden is in an unusual position as president, his views aren’t necessarily uncommon among other Catholics. A Pew Research poll found 56 percent of self-identified Catholics said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Some 67 percent of Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more said it should be illegal in some or all cases.
Bishops usually aim to make ecclesiastical decisions based on Catholic doctrine, not Catholic opinion. But the poll numbers reveal gaps in Catholic understanding and practice, and may raise questions about how bishops would consistently apply Eucharistic guidelines to a wide range of Catholics.
For now, the bishops voted 168-55 to proceed with drafting a document about the Eucharist, though two-thirds of the body would have to vote to approve a final version when they meet again in November.
Even if the bishops pass such a document, it won’t set a national policy but will instead offer guidelines to local bishops interacting with local Mass-goers, whether public or private figures. Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., already has said he wouldn’t withhold Communion from Biden because he doesn’t want to weaponize the Mass.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration continues to set national policy that will likely continue to draw the attention of at least some bishops. The day after the bishops met in June, Secretary of Veteran Affairs Denis McDonough announced at a gay pride event in Orlando that the government plans to offer “confirmation surgery” to transgender veterans.
McDonough is a Catholic.
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