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American bishops try to figure out the new normal

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Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Biden’s wife, Jill, holds the family Bible during his inauguration at the Capitol in Washington on 20 January 2021. Photo: CNS, Andrew Harnik, pool via Reuters

Disgraced former President Donald Trump departed Washington to the strains of My Way (a song once aptly described by Peter Kreeft as the “national anthem of hell”) early on 20 January 2020 and, a few hours later, Joseph Biden was sworn in as the second Catholic President in American history.

American Catholicism

A visitor from Mars could be forgiven for thinking this was an overwhelming triumph for American Catholicism.  After all, Trump, who teargassed peaceful protesters so he could wave a Bible he doesn’t read in front of a church he doesn’t attend to exploit a Faith he doesn’t practice and insult a God he doesn’t obey was replaced by a Catholic who was sworn in on his family’s Douay-Rheims Bible by the Catholic Chief Justice of the Supreme Court while his Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn in by one of the five other Catholics on the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor.  All this happened after Biden attended an Inaugural Mass and was prefaced by an invocation offered by a Catholic priest as the soon-to-be President crossed himself on national television.

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump depart Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on 20 January 2021, ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. Photo: CNS, Carlos Barria, Reuters

Biden’s Inaugural Address not only was composed of complete sentences and logically coherent thoughts, it was suffused with quotes from and allusions to Scripture and Catholic Social doctrine, as well as quotations from both St Augustine and Pope Francis. Poet Amanda Gorman likewise quoted Scripture and Garth Brooks invited everyone on planet Earth to sing Amazing Grace.  Some American wags have already noted it felt more like a Church service than a civic ceremony.

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A divided Church in the US

And yet, millions of American Catholics, including not a few bishops, have met the incoming president with remarkable hostility.  Instead of emphasising good will and commonality with a Catholic who is deeply empathetic to much in the Church’s teaching, the USCCB’s Archbishop Jose Gomez came close to issuing a statement on Inauguration Day fraught with suspicion and fear, reading in part:

“So, I must point out 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. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.”

Joe Biden greets Jesuit Father Leo O’Donovan during Biden’s inauguration as the 46th president of the United States at the US Capitol in Washington on 20 Jannuary 2021. Photo: CNS, Brendan McDermid, Reuters

The statement was scotched by intervention from the Vatican and condemned by such figures as Cardinal Blase Cupich and Joseph Tobin as well as other unnamed bishops.  Rome later released a communique from Pope Francis extending the pope’s “cordial good wishes and the assurance of [his] prayers” for the new president.

The US Church’s feedback loop

All of this signals the fact that the American episcopacy is struggling to navigate in a country where a few issues — abortion and homosexuality chief among them, with a strong fear of religious persecution of conservative Christians layered on top — have been allowed to dominate Catholic discourse and have resulted in a deeply unbalanced implementation of Catholic social teaching as a result.  The chaos in the episcopacy reflects the chaos among the laity and vice versa, creating a feedback loop that has led to the craziness of a Catholic Church where nearly half of American Catholics regard the Pope as the great threat facing the Church and believe without the slightest evidence that the election was stolen.

A possible way forward

Here is my suggestion to the Bishops on how to proceed:

First banish from your minds the falsehood that we are or are about to be persecuted.

Second, banish the notion that people like Biden “promote” abortion or somehow turbo-charge abortion when in power.

Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States as his wife, Jill Biden, holds a Bible on the West Front of the US Capitol. Photo: CNS, Jim Bourg, Reuters

A truer picture

Here’s reality: Democrats passively allow an abortion regime that is 100% the creation of a Court dominated by GOP appointees since 1970. They don’t make women abort. Women, acting as independent actors, choose to do it or don’t. It is a triumph of libertarian and free market ideology, not imposed by the state like the Chinese One Child Policy.

What is imposed by the state are various economic policies that either ease or increase the pressure to abort. The “prolife” GOP favors inflicting pressures on the poor to abort. Democrats favor policies that ease those pressures. Unsurprisingly, abortion rates saw their most precipitous drops under Clinton and again under Obama.

Moment offers an opportunity

American Catholics have a golden opportunity not only to reduce our abortion rates, but to enact some important advances in Catholic social policy if we can only get over the reflexive notion that Catholics like Biden are enemies and see how much of the Church’s teaching he favours—including teaching that will help reduce abortion rates.


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