Nov 19, 2020 10:00 AM

Catholics divided as bishops examine Biden's abortion stance

Posted Nov 19, 2020 10:00 AM
His Excellence Mgr José Horacio GOMEZ, Metropolitan Archbishop of Los Angeles and President of the USCCB during this week's virtual annual meeting-photo Catholic News Service
His Excellence Mgr José Horacio GOMEZ, Metropolitan Archbishop of Los Angeles and President of the USCCB during this week's virtual annual meeting-photo Catholic News Service

By DAVID CRARY, Associated Press

Catholics split almost evenly in supporting Donald Trump or Joe Biden in the presidential election. Now they’re sharply divided over a declaration by the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that the president-elect’s support for abortion rights presents the church with a “difficult and complex situation.”

The USCCB’s president, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, made that statement Tuesday near the close of the conference’s national meeting and announced the formation of a working group of bishops to assess the dilemma. Some experts said it’s possible the group will discuss whether Biden — a practicing Roman Catholic — should be barred from partaking in Holy Communion.

Catholic anti-abortion activists hope the bishops follow through with tough words and action, making clear that Catholic politicians who support abortion are in breach of church teaching.

Biden’s policy agenda “is incompatible with the Catholic position on abortion and the protection of innocent human life,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a leading anti-abortion group.

But others criticized the USCCB as setting the stage for potential conflict with the president-elect just days after he received a congratulatory call from Pope Francis. Biden said he hopes to work with the pontiff on issues such as climate change, poverty and immigration.

“The USCCB leadership simply can’t embrace the idea of engagement and goodwill that Pope Francis has asked of them,” said David Gibson, director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture. “That the pope called to congratulate Biden and discussed working together while the American bishops capped their meeting with plans to do battle with the incoming president says it all.”

Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, also was dismayed by the USCCB.

“It seems they’d like to start an antagonistic relationship with only the second Catholic to be elected the president of this country,” she said via email. “This is appalling.”

“The bishops have chosen to continue the culture war that uses abortion to drive wedges in our church and our society, because they see that as a winning issue for them,” she wrote.

Gomez has welcomed many of Biden’s stances, including on immigration, racial justice and climate change. But some conservative bishops, citing the church’s opposition to abortion, have been outspoken in their criticism after Gomez congratulated Biden on his victory.

On Tuesday, as the USCCB ended the public portion of its meeting, Gomez read a statement that arose from discussions with some of the agitated bishops.

“The president-elect has given us reason to think he will support some good policies” but also some that “undermine our preeminent priority of the elimination of abortion,” the archbishop said.

“These policies pose a serious threat to the common good,” Gomez added. “When politicians who profess the Catholic faith support them ... it creates confusion among the faithful about what the church actually teaches on these questions.”

Gomez said he would form a working group to address the matter, headed by the USCCB’s vice president, Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron.

Two Catholic academics, responding to queries from The Associated Press, did not rule out the possibility that the working group could discuss whether Biden should be barred from partaking in Holy Communion because of his abortion stance.

That question “does not turn on what political office he holds, but on his public conduct as a Catholic,” said Edward Peters, professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

“His prominence in public life makes his case more visible, certainly,” Peters added. “But, in the end, it is his own behavior that determines whether he should be refused Holy Communion.”

Thomas Groome, a theology professor at Boston College, said conservative bishops on the working group would likely push for Biden to be denied Communion. But he noted that Biden’s support for abortion rights is, according to many surveys, shared by most U.S. Catholics.

Groome called Gomez’s statement “dreadfully unfortunate” and said “the bishops should be helping bring us together rather than driving us apart.”

Chieko Noguchi, a USCCB spokeswoman, said the working group has not yet met and declined to comment on whether it would discuss a potential Communion ban for Biden. There has been no response by Biden’s transition team to AP requests for comment.

Divisions within the USCCB’s ranks over the president-elect have been stark, with some, such as Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, balking at recognizing his victory.

“I appreciate Archbishop Gomez’ acknowledgment that Vice President Biden’s proposed policies are divergent from Catholic teaching in significant ways,” Strickland tweeted Tuesday. “It remains troubling that the USCCB treats the election as certified when it is not & it continues to be a source of division.”

Journalists for Catholic news outlets pointed out that the USCCB did not wait for election results to be certified in 2016, when it swiftly congratulated Trump after Election Day.

Kristan Hawkins, a Catholic who is president of Students for Life of America, said leaders of the U.S. church need to be blunter in condeming Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.

“This pretense that ending preborn life is negotiable with the church does create chaos and confusion,” Hawkins said. “This failure of leadership gives women who know that abortion is wrong the permission they’re looking for to get an abortion.”

However, Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, said Gomez’s claim that Biden’s position creates confusion among church members is “condescending.”

“They are, in fact, well-informed and have used their consciences in their choice both to elect President-elect Biden and to support reproductive health care,” she said.

In the election, 50% of Catholic voters backed Trump and 49% favored Biden, according to VoteCast, a survey of more than 110,000 voters nationwide conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago.

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By DAVID CRARY, Associated Press

The head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told colleagues Tuesday that President-elect Joe Biden’s policy positions, including support for abortion rights, pose a “difficult and complex situation” for the church.

Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, completing his first year as the USCCB’s president, welcomes many of Biden’s stances, including on immigration, racial justice and climate change. But some conservative bishops, noting the church’s strong opposition to abortion, were upset last week when Gomez congratulated Biden — a fellow Catholic — on his victory.

On Tuesday, as the USCCB ended the public portion of its two-day national meeting, Gomez departed from the official agenda to broach the issue.

“We are facing a unique moment in our history,” he said. “The president-elect has given us reason to think he will support some good policies" but also some that "undermine our preeminent priority of the elimination of abortion.”

“These policies pose a serious threat to the common good,” Gomez said. “When politicians who profess the Catholic faith support them ... it creates confusion among the faithful about what the church actually teaches on these questions.”

Gomez said he would form a working group to address the matter, headed by the USCCB's vice president, Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron.

There was no immediate response by Biden’s transition team to an AP request for comment.

Gomez’s unexpected remarks followed a two-hour session in which bishops from across the U.S., meeting online due to the coronavirus outbreak, shared their dioceses’ efforts to cope with the pandemic and to combat systemic racism.

Some who spoke during the racial injustice discussion represent communities that have seen protests and occasional violence after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore was among several who described church-organized listening sessions for community members to share their experiences with racism and their thoughts on how to curtail it.

“These conversations can be difficult, painful,” Lori said. “A lot of people don’t think they need those conversations because they don’t have a racist bone in their body. The reality is much different.”

As one of several race-related initiatives, Lori said his archdiocese is building a new K-8 Catholic school in one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods.

Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis said his archdiocese is seeking to promote racial equity in its hiring practices and has hired a diversity officer for a group of Catholic schools.

Rozanski recently toured predominantly Black neighborhoods including a stop in nearby Ferguson, where he prayed at the site where Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by a white police officern in 2014.

Mark Seitz, the bishop of El Paso, Texas, recalled the 2019 mass killing of 23 people at a Walmart by a gunman who said he was targeting Mexicans.

“It brought home the fact that white supremacy is not a harmless fringe ideology. It’s a death-dealing ideology,” Seitz said. “It reminded us that words matter — words that denigrate immigrants and other people of color really matter and feed into these ways of thinking.”

Seitz said the diocese is looking at forming a truth commission exploring the history and current status of racism in the region, and how it has impacted Native Americans, Hispanics, immigrants and others.

Tuesday's discussion was led by Bishop Shelton Fabre of the Louisiana diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, who heads the USCCB’s Committee Against Racism.

“The work is hard, the work is slow, but the work is being done,” he said. “In my diocese, hearts are being changed.”

Amid the protests following Floyd’s killing, some Black Catholics were outspoken in urging the church to take substantive steps conveying that their presence is valued. There have been calls for some form of reparations, and for the teaching of Black Catholic history in Catholic schools.

Black Catholics’ somewhat marginal place in the U.S. church is illustrated by statistics compiled by the USCCB: There are about 3 million African American members of the faith, roughly 4% of the nation’s 69 million Catholics, but as of January there were just 250 Black priests, or less than 1% of the total of 36,500.

Also Tuesday, a dozen bishops shared their experiences coping with the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced many dioceses to halt or sharply reduce in-person worship.

Bishop Oscar Cantú of San Jose, California, described outreach efforts aimed at sick and older adult parishioners and recounted the painful decision to lay off 15% of the diocese staff due to reduced income from offerings.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, where several priests and an auxiliary bishop have died of COVID-19, said a specially trained team of priests that was equipped with state-of-the-art protective equipment won permission to administer end-of-life sacraments to Catholic patients in hospitals.

John Wester, the archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, said many parishioners were angry when restrictions forced the cancellation of in-person Masses at which they could receive Holy Communion.

“We’re grateful for that devotion,” Wester said. “On the other hand, we’re trying to keep people safe."