During their June General Assembly America’s Catholic bishops blundered into the US culture wars. Holy Mother Church in the USA seemed about to threaten President Jo Biden over his position on abortion. Quarrels broke out. Bishops openly questioned each others’ motives. They finally decided that work should begin on drafting a formal statement which could contain guidance on moral impediments to receiving holy communion. Such a statement could deny communion to the President, a pious mass-going Catholic who, unlike Trump, shares the Church’s position on climate change, immigration and racial justice.
This was transparently a disunited Bishops Conference, something that Pope Francis and all former Popes sought to avoid. Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), failed to find a consensus. Perhaps arguing online didn’t help. The critical vote on tasking “the Committee on Doctrine to move forward with the drafting of a formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church” was 168 to 55 with 6 abstentions. Such USCCB Action Items would normally pass with fewer than ten against or abstaining.
Rather less momentous than Martin Luther posting his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg you might say. And you’d be right. Though you’d be missing an important point. Cardinal Luis Ladaria, a Jesuit colleague of the Pope and Prefect the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had written in May urging the USCCB to avoid a vote. Pope and Vatican feared the debate would become “a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger Church in the United States”. Ladaria reminded the Conference of the ‘prerogatives of the Vatican’ and the rights of individual bishops suggesting they discuss their approach with the bishops of other countries and seek a ‘true consensus’. This, in Vaticanese, was explicit guidance meaning “don’t go there”. That guidance was ignored. Indirectly but surely they were defying the Pope.
The clash between America’s bishops and the Pope had been some time coming and is significant for American politics as well as the Church. Catholics make up 22% of the US electorate. Strong and opposing views on abortion and gay rights are held by Christian communities and by the influential secular women’s movement throughout the USA. Whilst campaigning Trump made much of Biden’s support for a woman’s right to choose.
Over his long career in politics Jo Biden’s position on abortion has changed. In the last fifteen years he has moved from traditional Catholic opposition to abortion to a more supportive if nuanced position, distinguishing his personal views on abortion from a representative political role where he felt he had ‘no right’ to overrule the choices made by the majority of American women. He opposes the 1976 Hyde Amendment which bans federal funding of medical programmes that include abortion provision and is committed to defending as constitutional Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court enabling judgement, a hot issue now the court has a conservative majority.
In 2016, Catholics voters, traditionally democrat leaning, voted 52% for Trump and 44% for Hillary Clinton. But in 2020 with a Catholic candidate the Catholic vote was evenly distributed between Republicans and Democrats, though it was racially split with 67% of Hispanics voting for Biden compared to 42% of White Catholics. According to the Pew Foundation, a 2019 survey showed 77% of Democrat or democrat-leaning Catholics thought that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 63% of Republican Catholics believed the opposite. In a tight race every vote counts.
Archbishop Gomez, the President of the USCCB, informed the Bishops conference at their November 2020 meeting that he was setting up of a working group on relations with President-elect Biden, singling out abortion as creating a ‘difficult and complex situation’. The group operated in the shadows - nothing unusual ecclesiastically there. But disbanded after two sessions in February 2021, the Biden working group was behind the Conference’s contentious and admonitory response to Biden’s inauguration. Gomez pointed out “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”. Five whole paragraphs presented abortion as the bishops’ ‘pre-eminent priority’ – which incidentally didn’t mean the only priority - all in sharp contrast to the Pope’s warm congratulations.
An even more important and politically significant outcome of the group’s work was their recommendation that the bishops should make a formal statement on the general issue of ‘worthiness for communion’. ‘General issue’ avoided any explicit reference to Catholic politicians’ conduct. Whether their policies or voting record put them in a position of grave sin and ineligible to receive communion would be a ‘particular issue’. The official line is now that the document aims to address the declining understanding of the Eucharist amongst American Catholics. But the claim put about by several bishops that such a formal document had nothing to do with Church relations with Biden was, to say the least, disingenuous.
The Vatican’s position on participation of Catholics in political life, expressed in a 2002 note from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, emphasises that abortion and euthanasia are not the only “grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest level of accountability”. Again climate change, immigration and social justice, as well as capital punishment, come to mind. The Bishops of England and Wales have followed the same principle, for example before the May 2015 general election, advising that Catholics’ voting choice “should seldom, if ever, be based on a single issue”.
In the USA the abortion issue is tangled up with both the constitutional relationship between individual states and the federal government, and funding for health care, limited by the Hyde Amendment. Under Trump, Republican-governed States increasingly attempted to restrict the application of the key enabling Supreme Court judgement of 1973, Roe v Wade. Several states sought to limit abortion to rape, incest and danger to mother’s health provoking powerful opposition from the women’s movement. The indirect impact of the Hyde amendment was to discriminate against pregnant women who were poor and relying on federal provisions in MEDICAID, while richer, insured, women could afford safe abortions. Hillary Clinton was the first to call for its repeal in her 2016 election campaign.
Jo Biden is America’s second Catholic president but he is the first to be open about the influence of catholicism on his spiritual, moral and political life. What an astonishing outcome if President Biden, who calls slavery America’s ‘Original Sin’ and dares to use Catholic language, should be at risk of condemnation by his own bishops. The Vatican, though, has a millennium’s worth of experience in dealing with troublesome bishops and already seems to be bringing the situation under control. In Pope Francis’ words, the Eucharist is “not the reward of saints but the bread of sinners”.
See TheArticle 27/06/2021