Wednesday morning, just as ceremonies began for the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released a largely condemnatory statement about the incoming president. Its focus on issues of gender, sexuality, and religious liberty prompted a backlash, indicating some church leaders have reached a breaking point over the USCCB’s myopic agenda targeting LGBTQ equality and reproductive rights.
The statement from the USCCB’s president, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, was much longer than usual statements from the Conference (18 paragraphs as opposed to two or three at most normally). It commended President Biden briefly before launching into its criticism. Gomez wrote, in part:
“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.
“Our commitments on issues of human sexuality and the family, as with our commitments in every other area — such as abolishing the death penalty or seeking a health care system and economy that truly serves the human person — are guided by Christ’s great commandment to love and to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, especially the most vulnerable.”
While the bulk of the statement’s criticism regards abortion, issues of LGBTQ equality (specifically, policies on marriage and gender), are listed as Biden administration policies which “advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity.” Even more, the bishops’ conference’s opposition to issues like marriage equality, proper healthcare for transgender people, and non-discrimination protections are all framed as enacting Jesus’ commandment to love one another.
Later in the day, more details about and pushback to Gomez’s statement was voiced by several bishops, most notably Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich. He tweeted that the USCCB statement was “ill-considered” and unprecedented, also revealing that it “came as a surprise to many bishops, who received it just hours before it was released” and without using the normal process for review of statements. The cardinal insisted “the internal institutional failures involved must be addressed.”
In a notably different tone from Gomez, Pope Francis issued his own statement of “cordial good wishes” to Biden, reported America. The pope included in his note to the U.S.’ second Catholic president, “I pray that your decisions will be guided by a concern for building a society marked by authentic justice and freedom, together with unfailing respect for the rights and dignity of every person, especially the poor, the vulnerable and those who have no voice.”
The Vatican also took aim at the USCCB statement. A senior official commented of the Conference’s statement, “It is most unfortunate and is likely to create even greater divisions within the church in the United States.” America reported further that by the afternoon, “a flurry of statements from some bishops seemed to take sides between the U.S.C.C.B. statement from Archbishop Gomez and the pope’s statement.” Roundups of different bishops’ statements can be found here, here, and here.
What should Catholic advocates for LGBTQ equality make of all this mess then? I have two thoughts about why this dispute portends good news.
First, the U.S. episcopate has been deeply divided for the entirety of Pope Francis’ tenure, but the brewing disputes in the USCCB that have played out internally may finally be spilling over into the public arena. It is incredibly rare for bishops to rebuke one another publicly, and yet Cardinal Cupich’s criticism was comparable to Lexington’s Bishop John Stowe who this week tweeted criticism of the USCCB’s establishment of a special commission to deal with a Catholic president. More bishops aligned with Pope Francis may soon add their voices, bucking up against a leadership that has stridently resisted the pope’s vision for years. The Conference, already facing questions about its mission and its financial viability, is all the weaker with such conflict out in the open.
Second, President Biden’s Catholic faith is demonstrably central in his life. It is conceivable he would have overlooked past Obama-era disputes to find common ground with the bishops. Yet from the moment of his election, Archbishop Gomez and USCCB leaders set an antagonistic tone. One small detail of their antagonistic tone is that Gomez’ statement refers to Biden with the circumlocution “our first president in 60 years to profess the Catholic faith,” rather than simply calling him “a Catholic.” The USCCB statement has likely severely curtailed any influence they could have had with the administration. Biden’s past indicates that he is more inclined to listen to pro-LGBTQ Catholic voices instead.
I would love to see a U.S. episcopate collectively speaking as prophetic voices for justice, like they did in the 1980s with their peace and economics pastorals. But it seems unlikely the USCCB will shift course from a nearly singular focus on weaponizing religious liberty to stop LGBTQ and reproductive rights. However, perhaps President Biden and individual bishops will come together around a common faith to advance the good of all people, including the promotion of LGBTQ equality from Catholic perspectives.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 22, 2020