Published January 21, 2021
During their annual meeting in November of last year, a critical mass of the Catholic bishops of the United States recognized that Joe Biden’s election to the presidency had brought the Church to a critical point.
The president-elect had long spoken, and with evident sincerity, about the ways in which his Catholic faith sustained him in times of great suffering, including the deaths of his first wife and his son. He regularly attended Mass and was famous for bragging about carrying his rosary with him. In his 2020 campaign, he quoted Pope Francis, spoke often about his affection for religious sisters, and invoked the social doctrine of the Church as a source of his policy positions.
Yet throughout his Senate career and his eight years as vice president, Biden had become an ever more strident supporter of the most extreme interpretation of the abortion regime imposed on the country by Roe v. Wade in 1973 and reinforced by Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992. He was an avid supporter of Obergefell v. Hodges and “gay marriage” (and officiated at one such ceremony himself when vice president). There was no visible distance between his recent policy positions, on the one hand, and those of the most aggressive LGBT and “gender theory” advocates on the other. Moreover, he seemed oblivious to the threats that all of this posed to the religious freedom of Catholic institutions and the conscience rights of Catholics in health care, education, and other fields. During the 2020 primary campaign, he went so far as to say that, as president, he would rescind the exemption from Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate (which included some abortifacients) that the outgoing administration had granted to the Little Sisters of the Poor, who refused to include contraceptives and abortifacients in their employees’ health insurance coverage.
The November USCCB meeting reached what one bishop later described as a “thundering consensus” that an inflection point had been reached; another bishop said that the meeting concluded with a “strong, clear mandate” for action. What, then, to do?
The president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, decided to appoint a Working Group on Engaging the New Administration, which would propose a plan of action in light of this unprecedented challenge to the Church’s sacramental and moral coherence. The Working Group would be chaired by the USCCB vice president, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit; its bishop-members would include the chairmen of the relevant USCCB standing committees; and it would make its recommendations to conference president Gomez as soon as possible.
In two meetings the Working Group quickly reached consensus and formulated their recommendations to Archbishop Gomez. As Gomez later reported to the bishops, the Working Group proposed two initiatives. The first would be a letter to the new president from Archbishop Gomez, writing as a pastor. The letter would promise support for the new administration in areas of agreement. It would also identify administration policies, including abortion, that the bishops believed violated human dignity, and it would urge the new president to reassess his positions on these questions. The second initiative proposed by the Working Group was the development of a conference statement on the Church’s eucharistic coherence.
The latter remains to be developed—and will be—but Archbishop Gomez agreed with the Working Group’s recommendation that an approach to the new president be made as soon as possible. Rather than a letter, Gomez opted to issue a public statement on the day of Mr. Biden’s inauguration.
The day before the inauguration, however, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark put intense pressure on Archbishop Gomez to make no statement, as did the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre. Archbishop Gomez resisted those pressures and planned to release his statement at 9 a.m. on Inauguration Day, three hours before the new president was sworn into office. Then the Secretariat of State of the Holy See intervened, demanding that the statement’s release be delayed. The charitable interpretation of this unprecedented interference in the proposed action of a national conference of bishops is that it reflected a Vatican concern that the first Catholic statement on the new president come from the pope himself (as it did shortly after noon on January 20, in an anodyne message of congratulations). It might also be speculated, not unreasonably, that representations were made to the Vatican, and perhaps to Pope Francis himself, by some of those who had tried to badger Archbishop Gomez into silence.
In an online article published in America, an unnamed Vatican official said that the Holy See had not been aware of an impending statement by Archbishop Gomez until hours before the statement’s scheduled release. Who, one wonders, might have raised concerns about such a statement with Roman officials at the last minute and urged Vatican intervention in American public affairs? Did anyone, on either side of the Atlantic, consider that such interference was precisely what centuries of hoary Protestant black legends (not to mention Thomas Nast cartoons) had warned about? Would the Holy See have attempted to quash or delay the publication of a statement by the president of the German bishops’ conference (some of whose recent public utterances have not displayed a familiarity with settled issues of Catholic doctrine and practice)? Why does the new ultramontanism apply only to the United States?
These are interesting questions for the future.
In the event, Archbishop Gomez’s statement was released shortly after President Biden completed his inaugural address. It was clearly a pastoral statement, not a political manifesto. Its tone was entirely respectful and devoid of clericalism. It acknowledged the new president’s refreshing and publicly expressed piety in “a time of growing and aggressive secularism in American culture.” It pledged to work with the incoming administration on issues the bishops had highlighted in the most recent edition of their guide, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, such as immigration policy, criminal justice reform, combating racism, and empowering the poor. It welcomed “President Biden’s call for national healing and unity” and proposed a conversation with the new president and administration on steps to build a culture of life in the United States.
And the statement properly highlighted the unique moral gravity of the life issues, emphasizing that the abortion license is “not only a private matter [but] raises troubling and fundamental questions of fraternity, solidarity, and inclusion in the human community.” Thus, Archbishop Gomez wrote, the abortion issue “is a matter of social justice,” for Americans “cannot ignore the reality that abortion rates are higher among the poor and minorities, and that the procedure is regularly used to eliminate children who would be born with disabilities.”
By any reasonable standard, Archbishop Gomez’s statement was balanced and measured; absent the controversy that erupted before and after its release, some would likely have argued that it was too balanced and too measured. The controversy, however, underscored the statement’s firm, clear, and unambiguous stance on the “preeminent priority” of the life issues—and thus heightened the impact of those parts of the statement that the dissident cardinals may have found so objectionable that they tried to quash the entire document.
Later on Inauguration Day, Cardinal Cupich issued a statement, followed by a series of tweets, deploring Archbishop Gomez’s statement as “ill-considered,” a “surprise to many bishops,” and the result of “internal institutional failures” on the part of the USCCB. Whether these harsh judgments reflect opinion in Rome as well as Chicago is not clear. In any case, they do not bear careful scrutiny.
The suggestion that Archbishop Gomez was somehow acting independently of the bishops’ conference and thus in an irresponsible way is itself unfair and irresponsible. The archbishop’s statement was crafted in response to the recommendations of the Working Group he had appointed in November. Those recommendations in turn reflected the broad consensus among the bishops displayed at their November meeting. Moreover, in identifying areas of agreement and disagreement with the incoming administration, the statement did not go beyond anything the USCCB had said for years, even decades. To suggest that there was something unprecedented here is to falsify history. What was indeed unprecedented, as Archbishop Gomez pointed out in his statement, was the situation of a president of the United States who professed a devout and heartfelt Catholicism and yet was publicly committed to facilitating grave moral evils. To fail to acknowledge that fact, and to fail to address it with the new president, would have cost the bishops dearly in terms of their own self-respect—and their public credibility.
No bishop who attended the November USCCB meeting and listened carefully to the concerns expressed there could possibly have been surprised by the content of Archbishop Gomez’s statement. The statement reflected quite precisely the dominant themes of that meeting: There are many grave moral issues in the contemporary public policy debate, but the life issues, as Pope Francis himself has insisted, have priority because they touch basic questions of human dignity and the first principles of justice. Some may have been surprised that Archbishop Gomez had the courage to write so forthrightly to President Biden, and do so after having been pressured by two cardinals; but any such surprise betrays an ignorance of the man. Archbishop Gomez is a quiet and gentle person who does not seek the spotlight; he is not an inveterate tweeter; he is not confrontational. More to the point, however, he is a man of deep faith and solid piety, who understood in November that an inflection point had been reached and that the Church’s evangelical credibility was at stake because of that. He offered a profile in episcopal courage at a moment when a few others—the real outliers in this drama—were demanding (one hopes without recognizing the analogy) a reprise of the accommodationist approach to Catholic public officials long championed by Theodore McCarrick, not least during the 2004 election.
Over the past several months, a consensus has emerged among the American bishops, including virtually the entire episcopal leadership of the USCCB: Maintaining a false façade of episcopal unity is not worth the sacrifice of the truths which the Church must speak. Those include the truth about the Church’s own sacramental integrity and eucharistic coherence; the truths about the inalienable dignity and value of every human life from conception until natural death; the truth about religious freedom in full and the conscience rights of those who refuse to act against human dignity; and the truth about the Church’s concern for the spiritual health of Catholic public officials who, with whatever degree of subjective culpability, nevertheless facilitate grave moral evils.
In his often-moving inaugural address, President Biden called us to “end this civil war that pits red against blue” and declared his belief that “we can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.” I doubt that Archbishop José Gomez was given an advance copy of the president’s address. But, providentially, his statement on Inauguration Day was a pastor’s invitation to President Biden to do just that: to open his soul to the fullness of Catholic truth. The archbishop deserves great credit for having the courage to do that, as do the many, many cardinals and bishops who supported him—and who will continue to work to turn this inflection point into a moment of evangelical Catholic renewal, irrespective of the costs.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.