The evolution of the controversial Catholic politician

Last month, the White House announced that President Biden will be nominating former Indiana senator and Notre Dame alumnus Joe Donnelly to be the next U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. University of Notre Dame President Father John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., extended his congratulations to Senator Donnelly, noting that he will be bringing “a genuine Catholic faith” to the Vatican and “an understanding of the role the Church can play in our world.”

Donnelly represented Indiana’s second district in the House of Representatives from 2007 to 2013 and served in the Senate from 2013 to 2019. Donnelly also taught courses in Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs from 2019 to 2021.

If confirmed, Donnelly will act as a messenger, tasked with conveying the intentions and explaining the policies of the Biden administration to the Holy See and vice versa. Jim Nicholson, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See from 2001 to 2005, told Catholic News Service that as ambassador, he “dealt in moral diplomacy, which is the diplomacy about the human condition and human dignity.”

Donnelly will be representing an administration which has found itself at odds with American bishops for rolling back many of the previous adminstration’s pro-life and pro-family policies; an adminstration which Archbishop Joseph Nuamann, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, says is “looking for every opportunity to expand abortion.”

Since taking office just nine months ago, the Biden Administration has already rescinded the Mexico City Policy, which barred federal funding of foreign groups who procure abortions, and proposed a budget which excludes the Hyde Amendment, a legislative provision that bars federal funding of domestic abortions. The Biden administration also supported the passage of the Equality Act, a proposed bill which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops claims “undermines the common good” and “discriminates against people of faith.”

Many in the media have identified Senator Donnelly as a “perfect” candidate to represent fellow “Irish Catholic” Joe Biden. Both have experienced an evolution in their views on social policy coinciding with shifting social mores in the United States.

Despite Donnelly’s assertion that he is “committed to protecting the sanctity of life,” his voting record on life issues is similar to the recent actions of the Biden administration. While Donnelly was opposed to funding Planned Parenthood early in his career, he voted to fund it in 2015 and again in 2017. Donnelly also voted for the Affordable Care Act, which required Catholic nonprofits to pay for abortifacient drugs in their healthcare plans, including the Little Sisters of the Poor. In 2017, he voted against a bill that barred states from using Title X to fund abortion providers. Donnelly’s rating by the National Right to Life Committee was as low as twenty percent from 2013 to 2014 and he earned a career high one-hundred percent rating by NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2014. His most recent ratings (2017-2018) were forty percent and eighty-four percent respectively. While his exact ratings differed slightly from year to year, after 2013 right to life groups never gave Donnelly a grade higher than forty percent, and he never earned lower than a sixty percent from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Donnelly likewise drew criticism for his voting record on family issues. In 2013, Donnelly voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned for not protecting “the speech or religious convictions of employers and co-workers on matters of sexual ethics and sexual identity.” Donnelly also earned a one-hundred percent rating by the LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign in 2014. His most recent rating was seventy-two percent.

Despite the fact that the shift in Donnelly’s political beliefs coincided with the social liberalization of America, he still lost his 2018 senatorial re-election campaign to Republican businessman Mike Braun, who painted Donnelly as a “say anything, do nothing” politician. Abortion in particular was one of the main issues of the election, as was Donnelly’s vote against confirming Trump nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. It remains to be seen whether this new post will be Donnelly’s swan song or if it is an attempt to revive his political career.

Michael Bender is a sophomore history major with a concentration in modern Europe. In his spare time, he can be found watching baseball or playing board games. He can be reached at

Photo credit: Former University of Notre Dame President Fr. Ted Hesburgh, C.S.C. greets Joe Donnelly and Richard Solomon; U.S. Institute of Peace, 3 May 2010; licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 License