Move by Catholic bishops against Biden brings howls of hypocrisy

Catholic bishops who voted to advance an effort that could deny President Biden Communion over his stance on abortion are being accused of hypocrisy by critics of the decision.

Biden, just the second Catholic U.S. president in history, regularly goes to church and touts his faith as a deeply personal aspect of his life.

Yet the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) voted last week to proceed with drafting a formal statement on the meaning of Communion, which will include whether pro-choice politicians such as Biden should be denied it.

The decision runs counter to the wishes of Pope Francis and has put the church at the center of a roiling debate over Biden, abortion and Catholicism.

It has also invited comparisons to former President Trump, with critics of the vote pointing in outrage to examples where Trump was not aligned with the church.

“You did not tell Bill Barr, a Catholic, not to take Communion when he expanded killing human beings with the death penalty,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), referring to the former attorney general and his position on the death penalty.

Lieu, a Catholic who has come under criticism himself for his pro-choice views, called the bishops “hypocrites,” a sentiment that has been echoed by others.

“Certainly, we know President Trump was a deeply amoral individual whose personal and political stances flew in the face of virtually everything the Catholic Church teaches,” said Maggie Siddiqi, senior director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

“Yet we heard not nearly as strong an opposition of what we have from a Catholic president, whose personal and political stance seems overwhelmingly and deeply aligned with the Catholic Church. It is hard to imagine that this is not simply partisan,” she added, mentioning Biden’s policies on child care, maternal health, poverty and racial justice as being aligned with the church’s views.

The White House has said the issue is a personal one to the president but has not commented further.

“The president’s faith is personal. It’s something that has helped guide him through some challenging moments of their life, and that’s how many Americans see their faith as well, not through a political prism,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

The USCCB document will be up for debate, subject to amendments, and voted on at the group’s next meeting in November. It would also need approval from the Vatican to go into effect, which does not seem likely. Pope Francis last week cautioned American bishops against denying Communion to politicians and warned that Communion can’t be used as a political weapon. 

The American bishops moved ahead with their debate, however, despite the pope’s warning.

“It’s a sad commentary, with all that is going on in the world, [that] they get together to do this. They’re siding with a particular vision of what’s important, and it really does damage to people of faith and people who are considering becoming people of faith,” said Lerone Martin, professor of religion and politics at the Washington University in St. Louis.

While allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape, repeatedly denied by Trump, shadowed his presidency, those charges did not bring a similar move from conservative Catholic bishops.

The big reason for that is abortion. That is the issue that sparked the move at the conference this year, and it is the reason many conservative Catholics — and the bishops who instigated last week’s vote — support the former president.

Trump sought to be the most pro-life president in history and left a lasting legacy on the Supreme Court by getting three new justices confirmed. That’s left questions about whether the court might overturn the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion across the country.

“You can’t support President Trump on certain issues but then when he says things that are sinful or morally corrupt, he can’t be held accountable,” Martin said, pointing to Trump’s divorces and allegations of sexual assault and lying.

Other voices who deeply support the bishops’ move say the important distinction is that Biden is a Catholic, while Trump is not.

“Donald Trump is not Catholic. If Donald Trump were Catholic and he had several of these divorces and he did want to partake in receiving Communion, he would have to get an annulment,” said Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins. “I don’t think it’s fair to bring up Donald Trump because Donald Trump is not Catholic and he is not beholden to the teachings of the church.”

Other conservative Catholics also point out that Trump moved forward their issues.

“Donald Trump did far more for the cause of life as a non-Catholic than Joe Biden is doing as a Catholic,” said Brian Burch, the president of the group CatholicVote.

The group Catholics for Choice condemned the bishops’ move as “grotesque and reprehensible” but said it was heartened by the bishops who spoke out against it.

The USCCB does not release how bishops voted. The action item for the committee on doctrine to start a teaching document on the Holy Eucharist passed 168-55, with six bishops abstaining from the vote.

The Catholic bishops group in the U.S. is headed by José Gomez, the archbishop of Los Angeles, who is more conservative than the two leaders of the church with whom Biden interacts and from whom he receives Communion the most: Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., and retiring Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Del. 

Both have said Biden can receive communion in their jurisdictions. Wilmington’s incoming bishop, Monsignor William Koenig, has not taken a public stance.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said that Biden’s handling of the bishop’s actions so far could be a good way to put the issue on the back burner.

He also warned that the decision could backfire on the church with younger people.

“You don’t have to take a stand on this to realize that the bishops’ position on abortion and President Biden is wrongheaded. It really is. It’s not just wrong-headed. It’s short-sighted, and they just seem unaware that a very large percentage of particularly younger Catholics do not identify with many of their positions and they’re leaving the church,” he said.

Tags Abortion Catholic Church communion Donald Trump Jen Psaki Joe Biden Pope Francis Ted Lieu
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