President Biden – only the second Roman Catholic in American history elected to the country’s highest political office – holds a picture in the oval office of himself with Pope Francis.
No doubt Biden can count on partnership with the progressive pope as he turns many Trump eras to fight climate change and reform immigration.
But support within his own country’s Catholic church looks thinner, and Biden has received a surprisingly hostile reception from the American Catholic Bishops’ Conference under the leadership of Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez.
At the crossroads between religion and politics, nowhere does the separation between conservatives and progressives in the Catholic Church split deeper than in the United States, as Biden’s election reveals.
“It’s extraordinary,” said John K. White, a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, “that a Catholic president, instead of being congratulated, [by the bishops] and say we want to work together while acknowledging differences that have only deepened the schism. ”
The split is due to opposition from many in the church 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 American Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Church of the United States, welcomed Biden on the day of dedication with a statement praising his “piety.” But it noted that the new president supported reproductive rights.
“I must point out that our new president has promised to pursue certain policies that will promote moral evil and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in abortion, contraception, marriage and gender,” said Gomez, president of the conference.
Gomez went on to reiterate that abortion remains the bishops’ “prominent priority”, adding: “We cannot remain silent when nearly a million unborn lives are thrown aside in our country year after year through abortion.”
Unrest in the conference over Biden was evident shortly after his election. At the conclusion of their annual meeting in late November, bishops took the rare step of setting up a “task force” among their members to “navigate” the “complex and difficult situation” with Biden, Gomez said at the time. .
He did not outline specific measures that the task force would take, but said abortion-tolerant policies promoted by a Catholic president pose a particular problem because “it creates confusion among believers.”
Gomez was unavailable for comment on this article, his representatives said.
In the Vatican, the pope’s supporters were not happy with the Gomez declaration. Francis responded by sending a message to Biden, reiterating the full support he has given the new president since shortly after his election.
Gomez, affiliated with the conservative Opus Dei sect, also met with opposition from several U.S. bishops, who said he failed to carry out the statement from all members of the conference as needed. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy indirectly criticized Gomez.
“Most importantly,” McElroy said in his own statement after the inauguration, that American bishops “should encourage our new president: by entering into a dialogue, not judging; cooperation, not isolation truth in charity, not hardness. ”
Contrary to Gomez’s skepticism of Biden, the conference welcomed the 2017 inauguration of President Trump despite his three marriages, extramarital affair with a porn star and a widely publicized commentary on seizing women in the genitals. (They later diverged on topics such as immigration.)
The right-wing branch of the church enjoyed a warm relationship with the Trump administration. The wife of former GOP House President Newt Gingrich got the plum job as ambassador to Holy See. Last year, Trump’s Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo took the unusual step of criticizing the Vatican in an antifrancis magazine just weeks before making a trip to Rome. (The Pope would not meet with Pompeo.)
The gap within the church has for decades been becoming involved with liberal guidelines in the 1960s, which were subsequently ignored by conservative popes – John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Francis has preached a return to progressive grassroots social activism and a more inclusive church. He is exalted bishops like the progressive cardinal Wilton Gregory, the first black American to become cardinal, but not those further to the right, like Gomez.
The city’s election brought the Catholic Gap to the forefront. The town’s hometown parish in Wilmington, Del., Has always given him communion, but some churches during the campaign refused. A couple of conservative Catholic leaders have openly raised the highly unlikely prospect of excommunication for the 78-year-old president.
“This is a turning point of significant significance” for the church, said George Weigel, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and conservative cinema of Pope (now St.) John Paul II. “It crystallizes a problem that has been building for years.”
He said Catholic politicians, including Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and California Gavin Newsom, have sacrificed their right to communion because of their support for abortion rights.
“This is not about politics,” Weigel said in an interview. “It’s the integrity of the church.”
Weigel said abortion is not similar to other problems.
“Not all questions are equal,” he said. “This is not about climate change or 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, especially in the United States, see the issue differently and more broadly.
“There are lots of areas where the bishops and the Biden administration are on the same page and could work together,” said Father Thomas Reese, a columnist for the progressive national Catholic reporter and veteran commentator at the church. “It would be a tragedy for the Church, the administration and the United States whose disagreement on some issues makes it impossible for them to work together on others.”
Biden’s views on abortion and related issues have evolved from opposition to tolerance and some say to chop closer to the Democratic Party platform. Supporters such as White of the Catholic University, who chaired Catholics for Biden during last year’s campaign, say the development is an integral part of inclusion and the broadest manifestation of Catholic charity – by inviting more believers “to the table.”
“Biden’s Catholic faith is central to who he is,” White said. “It simply came to our notice then. These are the priests he knows. It does not go away. ”
Times co-author Sarah Parvini of Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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