Funny how a presidential election can change everything. For the past four years, the story has been the evangelical church in the time of Donald Trump. Now it’s the Catholic Church in the time of Joe Biden.
There are key differences in this religion/power narrative. Through the agency of his spiritual advisor Paula White, Trump got evangelicals clustered about him, praying over him, and showing up for White House visits. Biden wouldn’t be seen dead with a bunch of bishops praying over him. The closest he’ll want to be is in the annual line-up on the steps of St. Matthew’s Cathedral at the close of the Red Mass marking the opening of the judicial year in DC. Or an occasional appearance with Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Washington’s first black prelate, in case the Black Lives Matter crowd resurfaces.
Already Biden’s been labeled by certain media1 as the ultimate in observant Catholicism, as if quoting Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi, mentioning words from the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings”—moving though they are—during a victory speech, and carrying a family rosary fill the bill. Some reporters seem to think so, judging from the Christian Science Monitor 2 calling Biden “the most openly pious president in decades” and the New York Times bestowing upon Biden the title3 of “the most religiously observant commander in chief in half a century.”
I am not sure why the Times reporter skipped over the Clintons’ frequent visits to Foundry United Methodist and George W. Bush’s use of Christian references in his speeches. (Fortunately The Hill called her out4 on this odd assertion.)
As a reporter myself, I look at our 46th president with a more jaundiced eye. The question isn’t what he says. It’s what he does. And during his first three months in office, he did a lot. Some of his actions: Immigration overhaul, and emergency paid family leave, were friendly to Catholic teaching. He also promised to raise refugee admissions to the U.S., but as of this writing (mid-April), he has not, prompting widespread criticism, including the Washington Post calling his inaction the administration’s “most consequential flip-flop.”5
Others were not. We’ll get to them in a minute.
Unlike Trump, whose church connections were cloudy, Biden has been set up—by some—as a standard bearer for Catholicism, being that he’s only the country’s second Catholic president and the first one in 60 years. Six in 10 Americans are aware of his Catholicism, according to a Pew Research poll issued in late March.6
His parish of choice appears to be Holy Trinity Georgetown, with occasional visits to St. Matthew’s Cathedral and Georgetown University’s Dahlgren Chapel. No surprise there; he attended Trinity as vice president, and Kennedy went there as well. The Hoya, the Georgetown University newspaper, reports7 that he came by the campus on Feb. 17 to get his Ash Wednesday’s worth of ashes and that he’s stocked his administration with graduates and professors from the university.
Meanwhile, conservative Catholics feel very much on the run, as detailed by Mary Eberstadt, a senior fellow for the Faith and Reason Institute. Writing in the Feb. 15 issue of Newsweek, she posed her open letter8 to Biden as “trying to reach you as a fellow Catholic.”
Was the president aware, she asked, that social media giants were going after conservative Catholic media? She began by listing Twitter’s decision to lock out Catholic World Report—the news arm of Ignatius Press—for its news story calling Dr. Rachel Levine, Biden’s then nominee (since confirmed) for assistant secretary of HHS, a “biological man identifying as a transgender woman.” Eberstadt sketched out a morose landscape for Catholics now that these social media organizations—seemingly emboldened by Biden’s very presence—are on the prowl.
But it’s doubtful that Biden is paying much attention to Twitter just now. Being that he’s only got a Senate majority if his vice president votes, plus his party lost 15 seats in the House, this is a man who knows he’s a one-term president and must move quickly. He’s got only two years before Republicans hope to take back the House and win back the Senate. He’s decided to go left; very left. This is a curious strategy because he won the election at least partly due to former Trump voters who couldn’t see themselves re-electing a sociopath and thus crossed over. He’s not rewarding those people in any way. Staying moderate would keep those Republicans at his side, but he has no interest in playing that long game. At last we see Biden for how liberal he truly is.
Still, the presidential stage is part drama, smoke and mirrors. One gives off effects, mirages, impressions. Even though Biden sees no value in compromising or adhering to Catholic doctrine in any way, he’s still plunking down a photo of Pope Francis in the Oval Office, something Jack Kennedy, the first Catholic president, would not have dared to do. His Baptist detractors thought Kennedy was too Catholic. Sixty years later, Biden is not considered Catholic enough, especially after he caved in the summer of 2019—under pressure from activists in his own party—to a resolute pro-abortion Democratic platform. To the dismay of prolifers, he backed off of his long-standing support (we’re talking 44 years) for the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortions.
He had to have known how the surrender on Hyde would resonate among his fellow Catholics. Did he just not care? And then he added that he wants to codify Roe v. Wade, which means allowing abortion until birth in the form of a law that can’t be fiddled with by the Supreme Court, Catholic justices or no. That means enshrining this 48-year-old contentious Supreme Court decision into law so that it can never be challenged by the courts again. This is not just forsaking one tenet of the Catholic faith. This is war.
You have to wonder what he was thinking. The Atlantic9 says he was backed into a corner over a two-day period by his senior aides, who didn’t think he could be a viable candidate without gutting the Hyde Amendment. But Biden’s campaign did not have smooth sailing after that. In fact, it was on life support until he won the South Carolina primary in February 2020, thanks to black voters.
Was Biden’s embrace of the Hyde Amendment until mid-2019 due to his faith, and, if so, what persuaded him to choose his own party over his faith? We may never know, but you can’t blame people like Kansas City Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann for calling Biden’s stance on abortion “religiously and ethically incoherent.” I believe that the 46th president could care less what his church says about the matter—if winning the presidency required throwing the baby out with the (Catholic) bathwater, he was all in. He never planned to come into office as a great change agent who could craft a great compromise on the matter that both sides could agree to.
Some reporters have wondered why the bishops are having a tough time with a Biden presidency when they had no problem with welcoming Trump with his three marriages, extramarital affairs, and crude language involving women. The difference is: Trump wasn’t Catholic. Biden is. There are different standards for the folks in your own camp. Trump’s past personal life was at variance with evangelical beliefs, but his steps in office (for the most part) were not. Biden’s personal life lined up with Catholic doctrine, but officially he’s racing in a different direction. His campaign sought to focus on areas of Catholic teaching and social justice (Covid victims, immigrants, expanded access to Medicaid) where he was more in line—and Trump was not.
The major question is what to do next. Denying Communion to a presidential candidate like former Sen. John Kerry in 2004 is one thing. Denying it to a sitting president is another. Besides, Biden has been down that lane. In 2008, the bishop in Scranton, Joseph Martino, vowed to deny Biden (then running for president) access to Communion because he was too supportive of abortion. On Oct. 27, 2019, Biden was denied Communion at Saint Anthony Catholic Church in Florence, S.C., by the Rev. Robert Morey. Three days later, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan told Fox News that Morey’s actions were understandable, but said he personally would not deny Communion to Biden. Morey no doubt felt cut off at the knees. From that point on, no clergy were going to push Biden away from the altar if their own bishops weren’t going to back them.
Some historical review: Back in 2004, the bishops were all over the map on this issue, despite then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger giving bishops the green light that year on the canonicity of withholding Communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians. However, then-Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, reporting on the letter to the bishops at their semi-annual meeting in June, misrepresented the pope’s remarks and urged bishops not to use the Eucharist as a weapon. The other man who had access to the letter, then-U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) President Bishop Wilton Gregory, did not contradict McCarrick’s version; as a result, bishops voted 183-6 for a compromise statement allowing each bishop to choose whether or not to deny Communion.
It wasn’t until a month later, when the Italian newspaper L’Expresso published the full text of Ratzinger’s letter, that bishops realized they’d been had. Since then, the policy of not withholding Communion from pro-abortion Catholic politicians has been known as the “McCarrick doctrine.” As of this writing, it is alive and well. Gregory, now a cardinal in the nation’s capital, has every intention of allowing Biden to receive Communion. He’s not alone. Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego said Feb. 1 that bishops must not “weaponize” the Eucharist, so Biden will have access to the Church’s sacraments for now. The folks in the pews are fine with this; according to the aforementioned Pew poll, only 3 in 10 Catholics say Communion should be withheld.
So let’s chart what the first three months of a Biden presidency has looked like through a Catholic lens. For starters:
• Pope Francis called Biden10 on Nov. 12 to congratulate him on his victory.
• In mid-November, two weeks after the election, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ended their annual meeting by announcing a working group of bishops to oversee just how to deal with Biden’s abortion stance. Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, president of the USCCB, put out a statement about how “the policies pose a serious threat to the common good. When politicians who profess the Catholic faith support them . . . it creates confusion among the faithful about what the church actually teaches on these questions.”
By mid-February, the group had been disbanded11 after two meetings, and their completed work (on whether Biden should be allowed to have Communion) has been sent to the USCCB doctrinal committee.
• On Jan. 18, in a sign that the balance of power was shifting, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi trashed pro-life voters in a podcast with former Sen. Hillary Clinton, saying that by voting for Trump they “were willing to sell the whole democracy down the river for that one issue.”
Three days later, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, speaking as Pelosi’s bishop, put out a statement making sure everyone knew Pelosi was not speaking for the Church and that politicians do not have the power to define Catholic moral teaching. “No Catholic in good conscience can favor abortion,” he said. “Our land is soaked with the blood of the innocent, and it must stop.”
• On Inauguration Day, former Georgetown University President (and close personal friend) Rev. Leo J. Donovan gave the opening prayer. Hours later, Biden showed up at the Oval Office to sign a stack of executive orders, among them one that prohibited discrimination on the basis of “gender identity” in all areas of American life. Two days later, five bishops put out a statement saying that although they appreciated Biden’s other orders on racial equality, immigration, and climate change, this order “threatens to infringe the rights of people who recognize the truth of sexual difference or who uphold the institution of lifelong marriage between one man and one woman.”
• Also on Inauguration Day, Gomez put out another statement, this one some 1,200 words long. It offered prayers for the new president, but made it clear the bishops have significant differences with Biden over “the continued injustice of abortion.” According to the new online Catholic magazine The Pillar,12 Gomez’s statement was held up for at least three hours by the Vatican, which was spooked by its confrontational tone on Biden’s day of triumph.
Other bishops joined in with their own statements: some in support (San Francisco’s Cordileone), some cautioning about the timing of Gomez’s statement and pushing a gentler stance toward the new president (San Diego’s McElroy), and one (Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich) in opposition. Cupich released a stream of Tweets calling the USCCB statement “ill-considered” and rushed through, with other bishops getting little if any chance to offer input. However, Gomez, as president of the bishops’ conference, was within his rights to issue such a statement without having some 260 prelates sign off on it first.
• Also on Jan. 20, George Weigel, writing in First Things,13 issued a call to arms, telling the bishops to get serious about setting standards for how far Catholic public officials can go before they are denied Communion. If the bishops don’t draw the line at this, he wrote, it will be difficult for the laity to hold these officials’ feet to the fire. In other words: Why should individual priests or laity step out where bishops fear to tread?
• On Jan. 28, Biden reversed a bunch of abortion restrictions put in place by the Trump administration, including the “Mexico City policy,” a ban on U.S. government funding for foreign groups that promote or provide abortions.
Biden’s action seemed aimed at the National Prayer Vigil for Life, which occurred that same day. Appearing on EWTN, Naumann of Kansas City (KS), the chair of the bishops’ committee on pro-life activities, told EWTN the president’s soul is “in jeopardy.”
“It’s a sad day,” he said, “for us as Catholics to see a president who professes to be Catholic doing something so contrary to our moral teaching.” Referring to the Mexico City policy reversal earlier that day as “trying to inflict the sexual revolution on Third World countries,” Naumann added, “It’s very contrary to what he campaigned on to being a unifying president,” noting, “He is obviously in debt to pro-abortion forces in his party and he’s just conforming to them.”
• Yet to come are expected Biden actions to make good his campaign promises to take away the religious exemption to the “contraceptive mandate” under the Department of Health and Human Services that forces religious groups to cover sterilizations, contraception, and abortifacients in their health care plans. One group, the Little Sisters of the Poor, which first ran afoul of this rule during Obama’s administration and went to the Supreme Court twice to get an exemption, will get nailed once Biden repeals it, which he’s vowed to do.
• In February, Biden was pushing the Equality Act, a bill that was passed at almost warp speed (six days) by House standards that expanded the 1964 Civil Rights Act to forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Christian and Jewish groups14 said it would also trample religious freedom while codifying gender ideology into law, giving people with religious objections to everything from same-sex adoptions to men being allowed into women’s bathrooms and shower facilities no recourse. And Biden backs it to the hilt. At this writing, it has yet to go before the Senate.
At the same time, Biden has reestablished the White House faith-based office,15 installing a liberal Baptist to lead it. It’s true that Melissa Rogers was a capable leader of that same office under President Obama, but it is telling that Biden didn’t reach out to a Catholic to lead it.
I’ve likened this time to Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera, set about a century ago in northern Colombia in a time of disease, strife, and warfare so much like our own. In the end, love does win out. Thus, there are strategies for this time. My suggestions:
Learn from the evangelicals under Trump and don’t do what they did. That is, no Oval Office photo ops that give the worst impression possible of groveling to the state. I can’t imagine a bevy of bishops surrounding Biden for an official look-see, but stranger things have happened.
No matter what the bishops’ doctrinal committee decides, the move to deny Communion is not going to work. Maybe everyone thought the matter was settled in 2007 when Pope Benedict XVI told reporters on a plane that of course pro-abortion politicians should not receive Communion. He may have thought at the time that Canon 915 made the matter clear, but obviously he should have said a lot more on the matter—leaving no wiggle room—when he had the chance. But he didn’t, and the hierarchy from this pope on down is split—not on the evil of abortion, but on whether the Communion rail is the place in which to make that point.
Speak truth to power, something evangelicals failed to do under Trump, starting with his constant lies, his dismissive attitude on immigrants and cruel treatment of the people who worked for him. “We can never give up on people but we have to speak strongly on their actions,” Naumann said. Being prophetic to the Biden administration may cost the Church, and it should. And when it starts doing so, that’s when the world will begin to listen.
Don’t be so surprised that all this is happening. The bishops got a four-year break while Trump and his evangelical cohorts did the heavy lifting and put two Catholics onto the Supreme Court. It’s time to go back to work.
- From the Catholic League: “Media Enamored of Biden’s Faith.”
- Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 17, 2021, “Biden, Warnock and the Resurgence of the Liberal Christian” by Harry Bruinius.
- The New York Times, Jan. 23, 2021, “In Biden’s Catholic Faith, an Ascendant Liberal Christianity,” by Elizabeth Dias.
- The Hill, Jan. 27, 2021, “In Biden, the Media Finally Have a Religious President to Celebrate,” by Joe Concha.
- The Washington Post, April 14, 2021, “Opinion: Biden promised to build refugee admissions. He’s on course to decimate them.”
- Pew Research Center, “Most Democrats and Republicans know Biden is Catholic, but they differ sharply about how religious he is,” March 30, 2021.
- The Hoya, “Biden Receives Ashes at Georgetown,” Feb. 18, 2021, by Gabe Fleisher.
- Newsweek, “Mr. President, Your Allies Are Coming for Your Fellow Catholics,” Feb. 15, 2021, by Mary Eberstadt.
- The Atlantic, “How Biden’s Campaign Confronted Him on Abortion,” June 7, 2019, by Edward-Isaac Devore.
- Catholic News Service, “Pope Francis calls Biden to congratulate him on winning the election,” Nov. 12, 2020.
- National Catholic Reporter, “Bishops’ working group on Biden disbanded; doctrine committee to address Communion,” Feb. 15, 2021, by Christopher White.
- The Pillar, “Vatican intervened to save US bishops’ Biden statement release,” Jan. 20, 2020.
- First Things, “President Biden and a Catholic Inflection Point,” Jan. 20, 2020, by George Weigel.
- NBC News: “Biden and Democrats in Congress Voting for Equality Act are Undermining Religious Rights,” Feb. 25, 2021, by Rabbi Avi Shafran (of Agudath Israel of America).
- Fact sheet: “President Biden Reestablishes the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships,” Feb. 14, 2021.
Julia Duin is a veteran journalist who has worked as an editor or reporter for five newspapers, has published six books and has master’s degrees in journalism and religion. Her latest book, In the House of the Serpent Handler: A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media, is about 20-something Appalachian pentecostal serpent handlers. She currently freelances out of Seattle for the Seattle Times, Washington Post, Politico and other outlets.