Richard Doerflinger

In these polarized times, it’s hard to be a bishop — and especially to be president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

On Nov. 7, the USCCB’s president, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, issued a statement congratulating President-elect Joe Biden on his election. This kind of statement has been routine for many years and was issued to congratulate President Donald Trump in 2016.

Some Catholics hit the ceiling, with the president of one pro-life organization saying she was “ashamed” of the bishops. Some bridled at Archbishop Gomez’s comment that Biden will be “the second United States president to profess the Catholic faith,” as though he endorsed Biden’s understanding of the faith.

But “profess” is a rather neutral word that can mean simply to claim something: “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions” (Ti 1:16, New Revised Standard Version).

A few days later, it was other Catholics’ turn to complain. At the bishops’ November general meeting, Archbishop Gomez welcomed Biden’s views on issues such as immigration and climate change — but said he has also “given us reason to believe that he will support policies that are against some fundamental values that we hold dear as Catholics.”

Among other things, he cited Biden’s strong support for abortion and abortion funding, for renewing a mandate on Catholic religious orders to provide contraceptive and abortifacient coverage, and for a bill called the Equality Act.

This last proposal is widely described as affirming rights for gay and transgender people. But it also authorizes “sex discrimination” suits against health care providers who decline treatments related to “pregnancy” such as abortion — and it nullifies any defense against such suits based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The act threatens the very existence of Catholic health care.

The archbishop appointed a working group led by the USCCB’s vice president, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit, to discuss how to address this unique challenge: A new Catholic president may try to force other Catholics to violate the teachings of their faith.

Now self-styled progressive Catholics expressed alarm, with one religious studies professor worrying that the task force will be “another salvo in the culture wars that uses an oversimplified notion of abortion to turn Catholics against one another.”

Was Archbishop Gomez being inconsistent, tilting to the political left and then to the right? Not at all. He was showing courtesy and respect to a newly elected public official, then noting that some of his policies present serious moral challenges. Respect for people and clarity on moral issues is an application to public affairs of St. Augustine’s call to hate the sin but love the sinner.

As to having an “oversimplified notion of abortion,” that charge is better directed at the pro-abortion movement.

No longer speaking of privacy and “the right to be let alone” with one’s choice about abortion, the movement now insists on mainstreaming abortion as basic health care — as a positive good that all Americans must accept and subsidize, and that all doctors, nurses and hospitals must provide. Claims on behalf of the unborn child, or on behalf of those who would give that child some modicum of respect, are not allowed to exist.

To be sure, Joe Biden once opposed such extremism, until a contentious primary season pushed all Democratic presidential hopefuls to accede to special-interest groups like the abortion industry. Since the election he has sounded a conciliatory note, promising to serve all Americans including those who did not vote for him. The church’s task here, as with all of us, will be to call him to the better angels of his nature.

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Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.