The nation’s second Catholic president has been criticized by both the clergy
Throughout Joseph R. Biden’s successful campaign for the presidency, he often spoke of his Catholic faith and its importance to both him personally and as the basis for his political philosophy. He wrote in his 2007 memoir that “My idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion,” and his campaign tactics have made no effort to hide this fact. Indeed, he campaigned explicitly as a Catholic, hoping to attract white Catholic voters in the key Upper Midwest swing states that would ultimately deliver him the White House, even as the national Catholic vote was split evenly between Biden and former President Trump.
The Rover last covered the Delaware-born politician in September’s “Integralists for Joe Biden?”, which analyzed Biden’s Catholicism and its effect on his life and political campaigns. He is, after all, only the second Catholic to occupy the White House. Since his election, mainstream media outlets have latched on to this aspect of Biden: the New York Times wrote glowingly of his coming to power as the herald of “an ascendant liberal Christianity” that was “less focused on sexual politics and more on combating poverty, climate change and racial inequality.”
Due to this, however, Biden’s early actions and statements have come into conflict with this professed Catholic identity, especially regarding the issue of abortion. The Atlantic’s Emma Green wrote regarding the call of some bishops to bar Biden from receiving the Eucharist over his public support of expanding abortion access, in direct opposition to longtime Catholic teaching. (The Rover covered an event on this issue in the fall of 2019 at Notre Dame Law School. The guest speaker, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, spoke specifically with regards to state politicians and the question of abortion and concluded that denial of communion was the appropriate penalty in that case).
Biden’s history on the issue of abortion is mixed. NBC News reported early in the campaign that in 1977 Biden, then a Senator from Delaware, voted against allowing Medicaid to fund abortions in the case of rape, incest, or considerations for the mother’s health. This compromise position would pass, but Biden also voted to repeal the provision in 1981. Since then, Biden’s position on the issue has become decidedly more towards expanding access, though not without controversy.
During the 2020 Democratic primary campaign, Biden initially said he supported the Hyde Amendment, a provision that bans the use of federal funds to pay for abortions (except in the above exceptions). This set him apart from many of his more progressive rivals, who argued for a swift repeal of the decades-old law. However, after blowback from those same rivals and under pressure from national pro-abortion organizations such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL, Biden reversed his position only days later. Democrats in the House of Representatives have vowed to repeal the provision, though it is unlikely that such a measure would pass the evenly-divided Senate so long as moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia maintains his support of the Hyde Amendment, assuming that all Republican senators stay to the party line on this issue.
Biden has also made impacts on abortion policy through his executive actions. One week after taking office, Biden rescinded the Mexico City Policy, a provision that prohibits federal funding of non-governmental organizations that perform or promote abortions. Since its inception in Ronald Reagan’s second term, the Mexico City Policy has consistently been revoked by Democratic administrations and maintained by Republican ones.
The last major controversy regarding abortion and other Catholic issues that Biden faces in his first few months in office is that regarding his nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, the Attorney General of California. Becerra was a fierce opponent of former President Trump in the federal courts, filing 122 lawsuits against the administration. Many of these lawsuits involved reproductive health related measures, whether it be a Trump administration rule banning Title X funds from being allocated to organizations that provide or refer abortions or a group of Catholic nuns who refused to cover birth control as part of their employees’ health plans. The latter lawsuit was used by Republicans to attack Becerra during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Finance Committee, though Becerra for his part denied it unequivocally: “I have never sued any nuns. I have taken on the federal government, but I have never sued any affiliation of nuns.” Becerra was correct in that he did not directly sue the Little Sisters of the Poor, though the case at hand directly impacted their religious freedom as they were party to the case.
Due to these actions which contradict longstanding Church teaching on the issue of abortion, and on other issues, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has issued several statements on Biden’s conduct since he took office. On the day of his inauguration, the statement of USSCB President Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles expressed hope that “[r]ather than impose further expansions of abortion and contraception, as he has promised, I am hopeful that the new President and his administration will work with the Church and others of good will.” However, days later, the Mexico City Policy was revoked, resulting in another statement from USCCB condemning the action, stating that “this Executive Order is antithetical to reason, violates human dignity, and is incompatible with Catholic teaching.”
To be sure, there are many issues on which the Church and President Biden are aligned, such as fighting poverty, climate change, and racism. However, as Archbishop Gomez wrote in his original statement on Biden: “For the nation’s bishops, the continued injustice of abortion remains the ‘preeminent priority.’ Preeminent does not mean ‘only.’ We have deep concerns about many threats to human life and dignity in our society. But as Pope Francis teaches, we cannot stay silent when nearly a million unborn lives are being cast aside in our country year after year through abortion.”
It remains to be seen if President Biden will maintain his progressive stances on these issues that are so important to both lay Catholics and members of the hierarchy, but it is unlikely that he (or his administration) will waver from their present course.
Luke Koenigsknecht is a sophomore from Grand Rapids, Michigan studying electrical engineering. He can often be found in the Knights of Columbus building. In his spare time, he enjoys reading as well as playing games or solving puzzles. He can be reached at email@example.com.