Biden Divides The Catholic Bishops

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Joe Biden managed to do in a single day what his 45 predecessors had not done in 232 years. On his first day in office, the new president split the Catholic hierarchy acutely, decisively, and publicly.

Keep in mind that Catholic bishops have a long history of neither “airing their dirty laundry” nor disclosing their differences. Unity and comity are valued highly. For example, no Catholic bishop publicly criticized Cardinal Theodore McCarrick until after his scandalous behavior became a matter of public record and salacious headlines.

Yet, on Biden’s inauguration day, all Hades figuratively broke loose in Catholic hierarchical circles.

The chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, issued a balanced statement stipulating that the bishops were not partisan but rather Catholics “seeking only to follow Jesus Christ faithfully and to advance his vision for human fraternity and community.”

The Archbishop proceeded to acknowledge Biden’s Catholicism, noting the president’s faith in “times of darkness and tragedy,” and saying “it will be refreshing to engage with a President who clearly understands, in a deep and personal way, the importance of religious faith and institutions.”

Archbishop Gomez then unambiguously outlined areas where the president, who is faithfully referred to in the media as a “devout” Catholic, disregards clear Church teaching.  “So, I must point out,” the Archbishop maintained, “that our 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 … we cannot stay silent when nearly a million unborn lives are being cast aside in our country year after year through abortion.”

Acting in his role as teacher, Archbishop Gomez schooled Biden on the life issue. “Abortion is a direct attack on life that also wounds the woman and undermines the family,” he reminded the new president. “It is not only a private matter, it raises troubling and fundamental questions of fraternity, solidarity, and inclusion in the human community.”

Before the statement could be released, a few progressive Catholic bishops, apparently led by Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago, intervened and delayed the statement until the Vatican released an anodyne message to Biden that studiously avoided such words as abortion, euthanasia, and marriage. Perhaps such terms are now considered inflammatory or “trigger words” in that diplomatic language sometimes called Vaticanese.

Using Twitter, Cardinal Cupich attacked the statement of the organization that represents American bishops. “Today,” he tweeted, “the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an ill-considered statement on the day of President Biden’s inauguration.”

It was a strident break with the gentlemanly decorum and mutual respect that universally restrains Catholic hierarchs from undermining each other. Nor did the Chicago cardinal stop there. “Aside from the fact that there is seemingly no precedent for doing so,” he added to his Twitter barrage, “the statement, critical of President Biden, came as a surprise to many bishops, who received it just hours before it was released.”

On the Archdiocese of Chicago website, Cardinal Cupich issued his own competing statement that ignored the USCCB message, while offering prayers for “the new President and First Lady, Vice President and Second Gentleman, and we extend our warmest wishes as they assume their new service to the nation.”

“Only two weeks ago, the world watched as our democracy was attacked, Today, we proved its resilience,” he added, obliquely chastising outgoing pro-life President Donald Trump. “The new administration begins in a time of global pandemic, economic peril and deep division, when millions of our brothers and sisters have been brought low by illness, poverty and racism. …”

The contrasting tone and substance of the two hierarchical messages appended a further discordant note to the controversy. 

Many of the nation’s bishops issued statements resolutely endorsing Archbishop Gomez’s straightforward U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops message. In the Boston Archdiocese, Cardinal Sean O’Malley issued a statement that avoided mentioning either Cardinal Cupich or Archbishop Gomez. Instead, he prayed that President Biden would “enact policies,” that, among other goals, “welcome the immigrant,” “provide economic justice,” and “end systemic racism.”

Apparently surrendering any hope of influencing Biden to follow Catholic teaching on pro-life issues, His Eminence wrote, “We will endeavor to dialogue with the Biden Administration to advance our commitment to the protection of human life from conception to natural death.”

Sadly for unborn babies, “endeavor to dialogue” falls far short of “enacting policies.” A garrulous septuagenarian pol like Joe Biden knows the difference between endless talk and effective action. Do the Catholic bishops?

Biden and his numerous media boosters have prattled endlessly about his almost mystical ability to unite America. Thus far, the 46th president has succeeded only in dividing the Catholic Church.


Joseph Tortelli is a freelance writer. Read other columns by Mr. Tortelli here.