Biden and the bishops: excommunication or storm in the baptismal font?


During their General Assembly in June, the American Catholic Bishops embarked on American culture wars. The Holy Mother Church in the United States seemed poised to threaten President Joe Biden for his position on abortion. Quarrels broke out. The bishops openly questioned the motivations of each other. They ultimately decided that work should begin on writing a formal statement that could contain guidance on moral barriers to receiving Holy Communion. Such a statement could deny communion to the president, a devout Catholic who attends mass who, unlike Trump, shares the Church’s position on climate change, immigration and racial justice.

This was clearly a disunited episcopal conference, which Pope Francis and all of the former popes sought to avoid. Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), failed to find a consensus. Maybe chatting online didn’t help. The critical vote to instruct “the Doctrine Commission to move forward with the drafting of a formal declaration on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church” was 168 votes to 55 with 6 abstentions . Such USCCB action points would normally be adopted with less than ten votes against or abstaining.

Rather less striking than Martin Luther displaying his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, one might say. And you would be right. Even if you would miss an important point. Cardinal Luis Ladaria, a Jesuit colleague of the Pope and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote in May to urge the USCCB to avoid a vote. The Pope and the Vatican feared the debate would become “a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the wider Church in the United States.” Ladaria reminded the Conference of the “prerogatives of the Vatican” and the rights of individual bishops, suggesting that they discuss their approach with bishops from other countries and seek “real consensus”. This, in Vatican, was an explicit directive meaning “do not go.” This orientation was ignored. Indirectly but surely, they challenged the Pope.

The clash between the American bishops and the Pope was imminent and is important to American politics as well as to the Church. Catholics represent 22% of the American electorate. Strong and opposing views on abortion and gay rights are championed by Christian communities and the influential secular women’s movement across the United States. During his campaign, Trump has placed great emphasis on Biden’s support for a woman’s right to choose.

Over the course of his long political career, Joe Biden’s stance on abortion has changed. Over the past fifteen years he has moved from traditional Catholic opposition to abortion to a more favorable, albeit nuanced, stance, distinguishing his personal views on abortion from a representative political role where he felt he did not. ‘had “no right” to override the choices made by the majority of American women. He opposes the Hyde Amendment of 1976 which bans federal funding of medical programs that include abortion and pledges to defend as constitutional Roe v Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court allowing judgment, a burning issue now that the court has a conservative majority.

In 2016, Catholic voters, traditionally Democrat, voted 52% for Trump and 44% for Hillary Clinton. But in 2020, with a Catholic Democratic candidate, the Catholic vote was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, albeit racially divided, with 67% of Hispanics voting for Biden versus 42% of white Catholics. According to the Pew Foundation, a 2019 survey showed that 77% of Democratic or Democratic-leaning Catholics believed abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 63% of Republican Catholics believed the opposite. In a tight race, every vote counts.

USCCB President Archbishop Gomez informed the Bishops’ Conference at their November 2020 meeting that he is establishing a working group on relations with President-elect Biden, designating abortion as creating a “difficult and complex situation”. The group was operating in the shadows – nothing ecclesiastically abnormal there. But, although dissolved after two sessions in February 2021, the Biden task force was behind the Conference’s controversial and repressive response to Biden’s inauguration. Gomez stressed that “our new president is committed to pursuing certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage and gender. “. Five full paragraphs presented abortion as the “preeminent priority” of the bishops – which, moreover, did not mean the only priority. All of this contrasted sharply with the Pope’s warm congratulations to the new president.

An even more important and politically significant result of the group’s work was their recommendation that the bishops make a formal declaration on the general question of “dignity for communion”. The “general question” avoided any explicit reference to the conduct of Catholic politicians. Whether their policies or voting results put them in a position of grave sin and render them ineligible to receive Communion would be a “special question.” But the claim by several bishops that such a formal document had nothing to do with the Church’s dealings with Biden was, to say the least, misleading.

The Vatican’s position on the participation of Catholics in political life, expressed in a 2002 note from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, emphasizes that abortion and euthanasia are not the only “serious questions of Catholic moral and social teaching which demand the most comprehensive level of accountability. “Again, climate change, immigration and social justice, as well as capital punishment, spring to mind. The Bishops of England and of Wales followed the same principle, for example before the general election in May 2015, advising that Catholics’ voting choice “should seldom, if ever, be based on a single question”.

In the United States, the issue of abortion is linked both to the constitutional relationship between individual states and the federal government and to health care funding, limited by the Hyde Amendment. Under Trump, Republican-ruled states have increasingly attempted to restrict the application of the 1973 Supreme Court key judgment Roe v Wade. Several states have sought to limit abortion to rape, incest and danger to the health of the mother, sparking strong opposition from the women’s movement. The indirect impact of the Hyde Amendment was to discriminate against poor pregnant women relying on the federal provisions of MEDICAID, while richer, privately insured women could afford safe abortions. Hillary Clinton was the first to call for its repeal during her 2016 election campaign.

Joe Biden is the second Catholic president of the United States, but he is the first to speak openly about the influence of Catholicism on his spiritual, moral and political life. What a startling result it would be if President Biden, who calls slavery America’s “original sin” and dares to use Catholic language, were to be threatened with condemnation (and even excommunication) by his own bishops. The Vatican, however, has a millennia of experience dealing with troublesome bishops and already appears to be in control.


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