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Conservative Bishops’ Attack on Biden Is an Attack on the Majority of U.S. Catholics

The bishops’ shameful resolution to deny communion to the president is hypocritical and out of step with Catholic public opinion.

Biden at New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi
Biden speaks at a Sunday service at the New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, in 2020.

After some Republican-leaning bishops condemned John Kerry, the Catholic presidential candidate in 2004, for his support of abortion rights, Senator Ted Kennedy organized an off-the-record meeting of 20 bishops and Catholic senators. He recalled later how genteel his Senate colleagues had been, but the feeling was not mutual. With great earnestness, one bishop said his criticism of the Democrats “had nothing to do with politics,” but rather represented his “concern for your mortal souls!” Kennedy laughed as he opined, “You know they’re on thin ice when their best argument is threatening eternal damnation if you don’t agree with them.”  

Sixteen years later, many of the same bishops are going after another Catholic Democrat: President Biden. Under the leadership of Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, they met remotely this past week and agreed to write a document denying Holy Communion to Biden. In an interview with The Atlantic, Joseph Naumann—head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-Life Committee—stated, “Obviously, the president doesn’t believe what we believe about the sacredness of human life.”

Why are the bishops doing this? They made no secret of their affection for Donald Trump, whom some labeled “the most pro-life president in history.” But new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from last November show that Trump was the first president in the past 20 years to leave office with all three abortion indices (number, rate, and ratio) rising.

The cause is clear. About 2.3 million men, women, and children lost their health insurance during Trump’s first three years in office. As many as another 12 million lost their health care during the pandemic in 2020.

Archbishop Naumann, one of the architects of the current anti-Democrat effort, made a point of saying in his remarks last Thursday that abortion was the “preeminent” moral issue “because of the sheer numbers.” But perhaps he doesn’t know that the Obama-Biden administration oversaw a dramatic fall in the number of abortions, far outpacing the preceding Bush years.  

Why does the number of abortions fall so much more substantially under Democratic administrations? One of us showed in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2010 that expansion of health insurance correlated with a dramatic decrease in the number of abortions in Massachusetts—particularly among teenagers—despite that state having more liberal public and private coverage of abortion. Many Republicans had predicted an “explosion” in numbers of abortions under the Affordable Care Act, but in reality the expansion of health coverage and availability of long-acting effective contraception led to dramatic declines.

Naumann said, “All women deserve the resources to enable them to fully care for and nurture their baby.” But perhaps he doesn’t know that the ACA for the first time provided precisely this kind of funding—and yet Republicans fought for more than 10 years against the ACA and the kind of help Naumann says women deserve.

The debate on “eucharistic consistency” is totally inconsistent. The bishops didn’t call for all Catholics who share Biden’s views to be denied communion. Nor did they call for people who have had abortions to be denied communion. They are politically savvy enough not to anger the 56 percent of their constituents who share Biden’s view that abortion is a moral issue but that it should not be illegal.  

What the bishops seem to care most about is the unwillingness of Democratic politicians to condemn women.

Has anybody pointed out that all these men have chosen as the most important sin the one sin that they are unable to commit? From Tertullian in the fourth century (who called women the “Devil’s Gateway”) to Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century (who wrote that women were “misbegotten males”), there has long been a disregard in the church of women’s ability to think and speak for themselves.

There is pushback from other Catholic leaders, among them Cardinals Wilton D. Gregory (Washington, D.C.), Joseph W. Tobin (Newark, New Jersey), and Blase J. Cupich (Chicago). Earlier this month, Pope Francis preached on the Feast of Corpus Christi that “the church of the perfect and pure is a room where there isn’t a place for anyone; the church with open doors that celebrates around Christ is, on the other hand, a large hall where everyone—the righteous and sinners—can enter.”

Subsequently, the top doctrinal official at the Vatican, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, wrote to the American bishops with a warning that “any statement of the conference regarding Catholic political leaders would best be framed within the broad context of worthiness for the reception of Holy Communion on the part of all the faithful.” But the American bishops have set aside the Vatican’s guardrails and elected to proceed full steam ahead, with a clear focus on Biden.

As a doctor, and as the niece of the first Catholic president and the Catholic senator who wanted to build bridges, respectively, we invite the bishops to uphold the best traditions of our Church and our country. Rather than questioning one another’s faith or respect for the sacredness of life, they should follow the lead of Pope Francis and give glory to God by reaching out to our Catholic president in pursuit of the common good.