The Bishops, President Biden, and American Catholic Politicians: An Uneasy Relationship

Charles J. Russo

Photo by Ramaz Bluashvili.

Historical Context

A timely, significant topic of discussion worth remembering, stretching back to presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s battle against anti-Catholic prejudice, is the relationship between politicians and their faith leaders. This relationship, particularly involving politicians who are Roman Catholic, is the focus of this article.1The points referring to politicians can apply to those of other faiths, of course. Even so, this commentary limits its reflections to politicians who profess belief in the Roman Catholic Church, of which the author is a member, however imperfectly.

In his September 12, 1960, campaign speech in Texas to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, an organization of Protestant ministers, Kennedy famously emphasized his independence from his Catholic faith, making it clear that he would strictly separate his personal beliefs from his public life,2Pope Leo XIII anticipated, and rejected, a dichotomy between one’s public and private life in paragraph 47 of his 1885 encyclical, Immortale Dei, On the Christian Constitution of States, “It is unlawful to follow one line of conduct in private life and another in public, respecting privately the authority of the Church but publicly rejecting it, for this would amount to joining together good and evil, and to putting man in conflict with himself; whereas he ought always to be consistent, and never in the least point nor in any condition of life to swerve from Christian virtue.” For a commentary on Pope Leo’s social teaching, see Piers Shepherd, Leo XIII’s Vision of Social Justice, Crisis Magazine, June 2, 2020. declaring

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act…I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as president…. I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

The debate over the relationship between faithful adherence to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and Catholic politicians re-emerged in the aftermath of then Governor Mario Cuomo of New York’s 1984 speech at the University of Notre Dame. Following Kennedy’s lead, Cuomo stressed that he would not allow his Catholic faith to prevent him from enforcing civil laws on such matters as divorce, birth control, and abortion.3Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York on “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,delivered September 13, 1984, as a John A. O’Brien Lecture in the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology. Cuomo said that “My church and my conscience require me to believe certain things about divorce, birth control and abortion. My church does not order me — under pain of sin or expulsion — to pursue my salvific mission according to a precisely defined political plan.” In what is at best a paradox, at worst hypocrisy, Cuomo had no qualms supporting abortion, a practice his Church has unequivocally condemned since the first century,4See Catechism of the Catholic Church 2d Edition, 2019, Sec. 2271, “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law: You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.” even though in doing so, he, like other politicians, repudiated the tenets of his self-professed Catholic faith. Yet, the same Cuomo had no difficulty citing his personal beliefs in overriding the will of the people and the elected representatives of the state of New York when he vetoed reinstatement of the death penalty “12 times in 12 years” out of his conviction that the death penalty is wrong.

Not surprisingly, the debate has continued percolating in recent years, involving politicians who identify as Roman Catholic, including Governor Andrew Cuomo5Cuomo signed a bill into law legalizing late-term abortion timed to coincide with the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, adding that “Today is sweet, because in a few minutes, I will sign this bill, and another New York national precedent will be established, the most aggressive women’s equality platform in the nation.” and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, both of whom publicly promote pro-abortion, and other, positions in contravention of their Church’s moral teachings. However, strife between Catholic politicians and their bishops has reached a full boil under the presidency of Joseph P. Biden. Often described as a devout Catholic, Biden is the latest in a line of Catholic politicians who have publicly adopted positions their Church has unequivocally rejected, as illustrated by his desire to codify Roe v. Wade, as well as his support for the proposed federal Equality Act.6Bishop John Stowe of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky was the first American prelate to offer public support for the Equality Act. Ryan Foley, Catholic Bishop known for LGBT advocacy comes out in support of the Equality Act, The Christian Post, March 30, 2021. Almost needless to say, these disagreements over the difficult underlying questions of balancing rights and beliefs over a range of issues involving human sexuality have led to what can best be described as an increasingly tense, uneasy relationship between President Biden, other politicians, and at least some American Catholic bishops.

The Equality Act identified in the previous paragraph is designed, admirably, to ban discrimination based on “sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition”7H.R.5, Equality Act, 117th Congress (2021-2022), Sec. 2 Findings and Purpose, (a)(1). in a wide variety of areas. While fully recognizing, and respecting, the rights, interests, and needs of all on both sides of these issues, if it became law, the Act would present serious challenges to religious freedom in the United States, because under its terms, “[t]he Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993…shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.”8H.R.5, Equality Act, 117th Congress (2021-2022), Sec. 1107, Claims.

More specifically, the Equality Act may be problematic because it does not include an exception to protect individuals or institutions who may be charged with discrimination if they act on their good faith, long-time, sincere religious beliefs. While no one should be subject to discrimination, a questions emerges over the potential impact the Act law would have on religious freedom for individuals and their institutions. The challenge with the Equality Act, or many other controversial issues, thus becomes finding a middle ground whereby Americans can develop a sense of confident pluralism9John D. Inazu, Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference, University of Chicago Press, 2016. allowing people to disagree with one another, even vociferously, on issues of vital importance but to express their different opinions respectfully without being personally disagreeable so as not to harm the social fabric.

The House of Representatives approved the Equality Act by a vote of 224-206, largely along party lines, on February 25, 2021, but it is uncertain whether it will pass in the Senate. In addition, although President Biden made it clear that “he wants the act to become law within 100 days”10David Crary & Elana Schor, Biden promises LGBTQ protections, Arkansas Democrat Gazette (Little Rock) Nov. 29, 2020, 2020 WLNR 34152710. of his taking office, this did not occur. 

President Biden, like any politician, regardless of one’s party or religious beliefs, or lack thereof, is in something of a bind of his own making. On the one hand, as an elected official, he has the sworn duty to enforce existing laws while promoting policies consistent with the wishes of his supporters and party; he also has the right to voice his opinion as he follows his own conscience. Moreover, in light of the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion, political leaders cannot allow themselves to be subject to undue influence at the hands of their faith leaders. 

Joe Biden at Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston by Stingrayschuller. (CC BY 2.0)

At the same time, though, as with other organizations, no one has a right to profess or maintain membership in a particular faith, which is open to all who wish to participate as long as they at least make good faith attempts to comply with the teachings and values of their religions. Accordingly, conflict emerges for politicians who profess to be faithful members of the Catholic Church even as they support and promote policies contrary to its long-held, clearly proclaimed teachings.

When confronted by the actions of politicians who are among its members but openly ignore the authentic teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, bishops and other religious leaders face a significant challenge. The behavior and words of politicians who fail to live their public lives in a manner consistent with their professed beliefs create conundrums for religious leaders, particularly bishops, who have the duty to protect and safeguard Church teachings. If bishops fail to speak out to correct politicians, or other public figures, who blatantly misrepresent their Catholic faith by their words and deeds, they risk sowing confusion about church teachings,11Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voiced his concern that “When politicians who profess the Catholic faith support [policies such as abortion] … it creates confusion among the faithful about what the church actually teaches on these questions.” Tamar Lapin, Some Catholic leaders worried Joe Biden’s policies will go against church teachings, N.Y. Post, Nov. 21, 2020. thereby possibly creating theological scandal for the faithful,12Section 2284 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.” Section 2286 adds that those, including politicians, “are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice, or to ‘social conditions that, intentionally or not, make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult and practically impossible.’” and less observant Catholics, let alone those of other religions who do not understand the bounds of licit dissent in the Church. 

Catholic politicians who openly ignore the Church’s moral teachings by presenting themselves as members in good standing, often with the complicity of friendly prelates, do so largely without repercussions such as being denied access to the Eucharist or other sacraments, a response critics describe as “weaponizing” the Sacrament. The situation with regard to the public understanding of the teachings of the Catholic Church is exacerbated, because media and the President’s supporters, in particular, continue to describe him a devout Catholic, despite his public positions rejecting some of its central moral teachings coupled with his apparently less than enthusiastic support for issues associated with religious freedom.

This issue comes to a boil because just as politicians have the duty to comply with the civil law and their consciences, so, too, do bishops, priests, and Catholic religious leaders have these same obligations to obey the dictates of their Church. To this end, responding to the President’s public positions in contravention of Church teachings, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (U.S.C.C.B.) Committee on Pro-Life Activities, remarked that “[t]he president should stop defining himself as a devout Catholic, and acknowledge that his view on abortion is contrary to Catholic moral teaching. It would be a more honest approach from him to say he disagreed with his Church on this important issue and that he was acting contrary to church teaching.”13Naumann further commented that “When he says he is a devout Catholic, we bishops have the responsibility to correct him. Although people have given this president power and authority, he cannot define what it is to be a Catholic and what Catholic moral teaching is.” But see Michael Gryboski, Questioning Biden’s faith over abortion stance is “repugnant,” Catholic bishop says, The Christian Post, Oct. 16, 2020, (quoting Bishop Robert McElroy of the Catholic Diocese of San Diego). 

Similarly, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, declared unequivocally that in light of the policies and laws he is promoting, including abortion on demand and the Equality Act, which contravene the moral teachings of the Church, Biden is “not a real Catholic.” Earlier, Strickland posted a statement on Twitter saying that “As a bishop I beg Mr. Biden to repent of his dissent from Catholic teaching on abortion & marriage for his own salvation & for the good of our nation.”

The Duty of Church Leaders to Protect the Faith

In light of the duty of Roman Catholic bishops and priests to safeguard the teachings of their Church in the face of efforts by elected officials to live openly in opposition to values they claim to share, a thorny paradox emerges. On the one hand, Catholic bishops and leaders must both respect the non-establishment language of the First Amendment while being careful to avoid intervening in political campaigns that place the tax-exempt status of their institutions at risk. Concomitantly, as bishops, priests, and others attempt to meet their duty to speak out to preserve the theological integrity of Church teachings for the benefit of their flocks, they must weigh their available options as they seek to ensure faithfulness with their religious and moral teachings. In effect, bishops have the duty to remind politicians, and all believers, that they do not have the option of becoming “cafeteria Catholics,” picking and choosing which teachings they will follow.14Pope St. John Paul II told a gathering of the U.S. bishops that, “It is sometimes reported that a large number of Catholics today do not adhere to the teaching of the Catholic Church on a number of questions, notably sexual and conjugal morality, divorce and remarriage.” He went on to say that “It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the magisterium is totally compatible with being a ‘good Catholic,’ and poses no obstacle to the reception of the Sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching of the Bishops in the United States and elsewhere.”

Arguably the most juridically, and hierarchically, organized major religion in the United States, a good starting point in this discussion of how internal legal disputes are addressed in the Catholic Church is its 1983 Code of Canon Law, a revision of the original 1917 Code, the official repository of ecclesiastical precepts governing its operations. In the Code, two provisions in particular are especially relevant. Pursuant to Canon 915, “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

If Catholic bishops do not remain true to the teachings of their Church, then they run the risk of grave harm, even scandal, possibly leading believers astray by failing to uphold the Gospel faithfully, regardless of concerns over potential political repercussions.

Canon 1375 addresses the role and disciplinary authority of leaders in the Roman Catholic Church. Under this canon, “Those who impede the freedom of ministry, of election, or of ecclesiastical power or the legitimate use of sacred goods or other ecclesiastical goods or who greatly intimidate an elector, one elected, or one who exercises ecclesiastical power or ministry can be punished with a just penalty.” As such, this canon appears to give effect to the earlier section authorizing the denial of the Eucharist to those who publicly reject Church teachings by “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” as evidenced by their ongoing public support for abortion. 

In a 2002 magisterial pronouncement, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addressed what politicians must do when facing moral questions in his doctrinal note Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life. According to Ratzinger: “When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility. In the face of fundamental and inalienable ethical demands, Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person. This is the case with laws concerning abortion and euthanasia.

Viewed synoptically, Canons 915 and 1375, combined with other magisterial documents afford bishops, and other members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the authority to sanction wayward members, whether politicians or others, who act publicly in defiance of Church teachings by denying them access to the sacraments or otherwise impose the rarely used sanction of excommunication. Consequently, the question becomes whether they ought to act, and, if they do, what disciplinary sanctions bishops and members of the Catholic hierarchy should apply to political, and other public figures, who, by publicly rejecting Church teachings, potentially cause grave scandal by the confusion they create as they essentially encourage others to model their behaviors in defying the dictates of their religion.

Resolving the Conflict

As noted, Roman Catholic bishops and religious leaders have the authority, if not, some would say, the duty, to deny the Eucharist, and perhaps other sacraments, to those who openly reject Church teachings unless or until they have recanted their public actions. While penalties such as the denial of the sacraments or, in the extreme, excommunication, lack the impact today in an increasingly secularized United States they would probably have had in the past in other nations when the influence of the institutional Roman Catholic Church was much greater, they would get the attention of some politicians, the public, and media. 

Penalizing politicians or others who publicly dissent from Church teachings, likely not the first choice of many, perhaps most, bishops and Catholic leaders who would prefer using suasion to have members follow Church teachings voluntarily, would likely cause an uproar of near epic proportions. Imposing penalties might even cause a backlash of sorts as critics would join in with a heckler’s veto, claiming that prelates and others were “weaponizing” or politicizing the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist.15For a discussion of this issue and the nascent disagreement between Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, who supports challenging politicians who defy the teachings of the Catholic and Cardinal Joseph Cupich of Chicago who is concerned that this would politicize the Eucharist, see Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, Politicizing the Eucharist, The Catholic Thing, May 1, 2021. However, such a criticism would indeed be specious because the sacraments, including the Eucharist, are not magic insofar as they require a state of mind in communion with the rites in which they seek to participate. Put another way, consistent with the most recent 2021 guidelines the U.S.C.C.B. promulgated about the Reception of Communion, the bishops make it clear that because the sacraments are for believers who comply with church teachings, “a person who is conscious of grave sin is not to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord without prior sacramental confession except for a grave reason where there is no opportunity for confession.”

Photo by Morgan Winston on Unsplash.

Of course, prudence suggests that before a Catholic bishop or priest were to deny the Eucharist to politicians and/or others who publicly reject Church teachings, individuals should be afforded explicit, fair warnings offering those impacted attempts at contrition. In addition, as a necessary precondition before offering such a warning, because this is a potentially divisive topic that could lead to confusion and rancor among both the clergy and laity in the Catholic Church, the U.S.C.C.B. is taking steps to offer a possible resolution to this dilemma. 

Amid debate over this ongoing debate over the receipt of the sacraments, when the members of the U.S.C.C.B. meet in June of 2021, they may enter the fray over who may partake in receiving communion, “clarifying the church’s stance on an issue that has repeatedly vexed the bishops in recent decades.” To this end, the bishops may vote to advise President Biden, and, by extension, other politicians, to not present themselves to receive communion if they continues their public advocacy in support of abortion. Referring to the President, in particular, Bishop Naumann added that “He doesn’t have the authority to teach what it means to be Catholic — that’s our responsibility as bishops. Whether intentional or not, he’s trying to usurp our authority.”16 Id. See also CNA Staff, Archbishop Cordileone: Catholics supporting abortion should not present themselves for Holy Communion, May 1, 2021, (reporting on a letter from the archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Joseph Cordileone). Because not all bishops agree, this is a situation that certainly bears watching.

The purpose of the U.S.C.C.B.’s offering its guidance would be to establish clear rules and procedures to keep believers informed of the expectations with which they must comply if they wish to participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church. Promulgating authoritative guidelines would also serve as a reminder that believers, regardless of whether they are public figures such as politicians, must, to the best of their abilities, comport their lives in a manner consistent with the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. Amid this debate, though, Cardinal Luis F. Ladaria, S.J., the Vatican’s prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote to Archbishop José H. Gomez, head of the U.S.C.C.B. urging caution, a development that may have the bishops reconsider whether to conduct a vote on who may receive communion, thereby adding further confusion to the situation.

The U.S.C.C.B., local bishops, and other leaders have the duty to begin by teaching and admonishing recalcitrant believers mercifully and lovingly, rather than punitively, by explaining that those who wish to profess membership in the Catholic Church must do their best to live in accord with its moral teachings. These bishops and leaders also have the sacred obligation of protecting authentic Church teachings even if doing so is unpopular. 

If Catholic bishops do not remain true to the teachings of their Church, then they run the risk of grave harm, even scandal, possibly leading believers astray by failing to uphold the Gospel faithfully, regardless of concerns over potential political repercussions. As the U.S.C.C.B. contemplates the unusual step of intervening with regard to the reception of the Eucharist, it remains to be seen whether the bishops will meet their duties to the church and faithful by voicing their opposition to the policies advanced by politicians who are essentially Catholic in name only, urging them to do more than profess their beliefs, and memberships, in the Church by publicly acknowledging, and seeking to live by, its teachings.17For a discussion of this point, see James Baresel, Will the Bishops Confront Biden, Crisis Magazine, Dec. 29, 2020. See also George Neumayr, The Waffling of the Bishops on Biden and Communion: They won’t enforce canon law against him. The American Spectator, May 1, 2021. In the event that the bishops make a determination whether President Biden and others who publicly refuse to follow Church teachings can be allowed to receive communion, they will essentially be following through on their obligation to remind believers of the words of Pope Leo XIII that Catholics must live the faith consistently by not openly separating their public and private lives as suits their needs. ♦

Charles J. Russo, M.Div., J.D., Ed.D. is the Joseph Panzer Chair of Education in the School of Education and Health Sciences (SEHS), Director of SEHS’s Ph.D. Program in Educational Leadership, and Research Professor of Law in the School of Law at the University of Dayton, OH. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Notre Dame University of Australia School of Law, Sydney Campus.

Recommended Citation

Russo, Charles J. “The Bishops, President Biden, and American Catholic Politicians: An Uneasy Relationship.” Canopy Forum, May 20, 2021.