Joe Biden has a weekend routine. Whether the US president is in Washington, DC, or his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, every Saturday afternoon — and occasionally Sunday morning — his motorcade rolls to a nearby Catholic church.
Biden is just the second Roman Catholic president in US history. But while the first, John F Kennedy, distanced himself from the Vatican to secure Protestant votes, Biden, 78, has long embraced faith as part of his political identity.On the campaign trail, he frequently invoked his Catholic roots, with stories about the nuns who taught him in primary school, or how religion helped him after the loss of his first wife and two children. He wears the rosary beads of his late son, Beau, around his wrist. When he was declared the winner of November’s election, he quoted “On Eagle’s Wings”, a hymn often played at Catholic funerals, in his acceptance speech.
But now, just over 100 days into his administration, Biden is under fire from American Catholic bishops who argue his support for abortion rights should make him ineligible to receive communion — a central feature of the Catholic faith. When the US bishops convene next month, they will vote on whether to censure the president.
Catholic church teaching argues that human life begins at conception, and abortion is therefore “gravely contrary to the moral law”. Biden was long a holdout in the Democratic party for his reluctance to fully embrace abortion access in the US. But in 2019, shortly after he launched his bid for president, he dropped his support for the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funding for abortions.
“Because President Biden is Catholic, it presents a unique problem for us,” Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City recently told the Associated Press. “It can create confusion . . . How can he say he is a devout Catholic and he is doing these things that are contrary to the church’s teaching?”
Abortion has long been a divisive issue in US politics, with Democrats largely supporting more abortion rights and Republicans endorsing a so-called “pro-life” agenda to restrict or outlaw the procedures. In 2004, when another Catholic, John Kerry, was the Democratic presidential candidate, several bishops suggested they would refuse to give him communion over his pro-abortion rights stance.
But much has changed since then. As a reckoning over clerical sexual abuse continues, the decline in church attendance among US Catholics has accelerated rapidly, while the rate of churchgoing among Protestants has stayed the same, according to Gallup. Fewer than 40 per cent of American Catholics attend church in a given week, down from an average of 45 per cent 15 years ago, the polls show.
At the same time, Pope Francis, who was elected in 2013, has preached a more liberal, ecumenical version of Catholicism that has attracted praise from the left and criticism from the right.
Opinion polls show the majority of US Catholics are more likely to side with Biden than the bishops. According to Edison exit polls, Biden received an estimated 52 per cent of Catholic votes, compared with 47 per cent for Donald Trump in last year’s election. And a 2019 Pew Research Center survey found 56 per cent of US Catholics said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Roughly two-thirds said they opposed overturning Roe vs Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that enshrined the constitutional right to an abortion.
In other words, if the bishops pick a fight with the president, they are further distancing themselves from their already dwindling flock — something I have seen for myself as a Catholic school graduate who can count on one hand the number of friends who still regularly attend church.
So far, the White House has remained mum on the issue. But the discussion reminds me of another leader who in 1996 attracted the ire of the Catholic hierarchy for taking communion at his local parish in north London despite being an Anglican.
Then UK Labour party leader Tony Blair apologised in writing to the cardinal who ordered him to stop, but added: “I wonder what Jesus would have made of it?”