John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life and author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church. Follow him on Twitter @gehringdc.
By: John Gehring
March 11, 2021
The crisis of U.S. Catholicism in the public square today is evidenced by an unsettling fact. A vocal segment of the American hierarchy stands in opposition to both the pastoral priorities of Pope Francis and the nation’s second Catholic president. The difference between how Pope Francis and the leadership of the Church in the United States approach Joe Biden’s presidency is stark.
At a time when the Biden administration and the Vatican are poised to help rebuild international alliances undermined during the Trump era—by finding common ground on policies that impact climate change, refugees, and global poverty—the Catholic narrative in the United States is often narrowly defined by a politics of confrontation.
The Catholic narrative in the United States is often narrowly defined by a politics of confrontation.
The presidential inauguration reflected both these opportunities and challenges, offering a window into U.S. Catholicism in its fullness, divisions, and complexity. Joe Biden started the day in prayer at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in downtown Washington, a church where the nation’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, was eulogized. The new president quoted St. Augustine in his inaugural address. The dazzling young poet Amanda Gorman, a parishioner at St. Brigid Catholic Church in Los Angeles, reminded us of the sacramental power of language to heal, challenge, and expand our moral imagination. While Pope Francis sent a warm message to President Biden, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops chose a more confrontational approach. Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, accentuated divisions rather than common ground in an inauguration-day statement that highlighted Biden’s positions on abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage, policies that the archbishop said “advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity.”
In a rare criticism of a fellow bishop and his own conference, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, an influential ally and advisor to Pope Francis, called the statement “ill-considered” and noted that it “came as a surprise to many bishops, who received it just hours before it was released.” The Church’s “internal institutional failures,” he said, must be addressed before “we can build up the unity of the Church,” and “together take up the work of healing our nation in this moment of crisis.”
As the Biden administration works to speed up vaccinations, reunite immigrant families, address economic inequalities, and confront the myriad manifestations of structural racism, the White House and the Catholic Church should find effective ways to constructively engage on areas of both conflict and consensus. While the administration and Church leaders will continue to disagree over abortion, LGBTQ equality, and what it means to protect religious liberty, these divisions do not have to undermine the many areas where Catholic teaching and President Biden’s policies align. Simply put, there is also opportunity in this moment of crisis.
The Catholic Church and the administration can work closely together on at least three core issues central to promoting human life and dignity: justice for immigrants, climate change, and workers’ rights.
The Catholic Church and the administration can work closely together on at least three core issues central to promoting human life and dignity: justice for immigrants, climate change, and workers’ rights. Biden recognizes the Church’s long history of serving immigrants and advocating for more humane laws. When the president first announced plans to roll back Trump administration policies and dramatically increase the number of refugees resettled in the United States, he did so at a speech to Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS). Along with JRS, the Biden administration should consult and work with Catholic organizations such as the Kino Border Initiative, the Hope Border Institute, Catholic Relief Services, and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, led by Sister Norma Pimentel. These organizations and leaders are on the front lines of advocating for immigrants and refugees.
The moral imperative to address the existential threat of climate change that disproportionately impacts the lives of the poor (many of them migrants) is also an area where U.S. bishops, the Vatican, and the Biden administration can unite. Pope Francis has prioritized climate and ecological justice as a pro-life issue, and he became the first pope to write an encyclical, Laudato Si, on the topic. Hours after being sworn in on January 20, President Biden signed an executive order to re-enter the Paris climate agreement and ordered federal agencies to begin reviewing and reinstating more than 100 environmental regulations weakened or rolled back by President Trump. Biden has appointed his fellow Catholic John F. Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate. Both Kerry and Biden have praised the pope’s role in rallying world leaders to address climate change.
Catholic social teaching about living wages and the importance of unions in securing dignity for workers also finds expression in a White House that wants to implement policies that address what Pope Francis calls an “economy of exclusion and inequality.” President Biden has signed executive orders that raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for federal workers and ensure those workers have collective bargaining rights. The president began his presidential campaign at a union hall in Pittsburgh and has promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.”
Catholic social teaching about living wages also finds expression in a White House that wants to implement policies that address what Pope Francis calls an 'economy of exclusion and inequality.'
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the 2018 Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME and argued that so-called “right-to-work” laws threaten workers’ rights and that dues employees pay to the union are essential to collective bargaining. The Catholic Church has articulated the need for wages that support a family and worker associations since 1891, when Pope Leo XIII issued the Church’s first social encyclical, Rerum Novarum. While a modern global economy presents new and unique challenges, Catholic leaders who engage with the Biden administration on issues of economic justice can draw inspiration from the Church’s past advocacy efforts in Washington.
Catholic social teaching played an influential role in seeding ideas that later blossomed into progressive economic and labor policies expressed in Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Rev. John Ryan, a populist priest who wrote his dissertation at Catholic University of America in Washington, drafted the U.S. bishops’ 1919 Program for Social Reconstruction, which called for living wages, public housing for workers, and insurance for the elderly and unemployed, among other policies considered radical at the time. Ryan later became an advisor to Roosevelt's administration. During the Reagan era, the U.S. bishops released a pastoral letter Economic Justice for All that challenged the limits of free-market fundamentalism and anti-government ideologies. At a time when powerful companies like Amazon are trying to prevent their employees from unionizing and the pandemic is deepening economic inequality, especially for people of color, the Church and the Biden administration have an opportunity to work together on a range of economic justice issues.
A Catholic commitment to the common good can be a potent corrective to the extreme individualism and libertarianism that poison our culture and politics.
In his latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis calls for a “new kind of politics.” It’s hard to survey the growing divisions in both the Catholic Church and in the country without recognizing the need to reimagine a better path forward. Catholics should bring a humility to the public square, even as we recognize how the rich resources of our intellectual and social tradition speak to our historical and political moment. Catholic social teaching is a helpful framework because it attempts to synthesize and connect values often pitted against each other in politics: rights and responsibilities, the immigrant child at the border and the child in the womb, the essential role of government and the importance of local civic institutions. And at a time of social isolation caused by a global pandemic, a Catholic commitment to the common good can be a potent corrective to the extreme individualism and libertarianism that poison our culture and politics. These dangerous ideologies have been exposed more than ever during this past year for what they are: a form of social Darwinism that leaves the most vulnerable behind and weakens our capacity to confront collective challenges.
Catholic leaders and the Biden administration have an opportunity to find common ground in pursuit of the common good. The loudest voices in the Church and in politics who often seem more invested in confrontation and division than in justice can be drowned out by doing the urgent work before us.