Catholic panel wrestles with gap between Biden, bishops on sexuality issues
On immigration reform, poverty, racism, workers' rights, the death penalty and a host of other issues Pope Francis and the Catholic bishops agree with Biden administration policy. On issues of birth control and sexuality there is strong disagreement. | Andrew Medichini/AP

WASHINGTON—When it comes to comprehensive immigration reform, combatting climate change, tackling endemic racism, and closing the yawning gap between the rich and the rest of us,  the nation’s Catholic bishops, its president who is a practicing Catholic, Joe Biden, and Pope Francis I are all on the same page. So are Biden, the bishops, and Francis in opposing the death penalty.

But when it comes to reproductive rights and sexuality—freedom of choice, legality of contraception and same-sex marriage, and LGBTQ equality—they aren’t.

And that’s a problem for Biden, the bishops and rank-and-file Catholics, a panel convened by Georgetown University said on Feb. 1.

Faced with that split, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, George Mason University law professor Helen Alvare, John Carr of Georgetown and NBC News correspondent Anne Thompson spent almost all of their hour-long session emphasizing the two sides’ leaders should spend their time talking and working together in areas where they agree—and have civil, reasoned discourse where they don’t.

“Adopting a stance of confrontation with the president…will reduce the common good” Biden, the bishops, lay Catholics, and Francis all want to achieve, McElroy explained, as the others agreed.

“We have to find some way to advance the values that we share” through policies such as comprehensive immigration reform, ending the forced separation of migrant children from parents at the U.S. border, and in battling racism, poverty and income inequality, added Carr, director of the Georgetown institute that sponsored the session.

“We should be political, but not partisan, principled but not ideological and civil but not silent.”

And, they added, reproductive rights in general, and abortion in particular, should not be the be-all-end-all issue that defines U.S. Catholics. “Some want it to be a litmus test,” McElroy said, adding he disagrees. So do other prominent bishops, led by Cardinal Blasé Cupich of Chicago.

Instead, Biden should be “theologically corrected,” when he expands the right to choice, said Alvare, a lay advisor for the nation’s bishops, speaking for the traditional church stand against abortion.

But in the decades since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision legalizing the right to reproductive choice, with limitations later in pregnancy, abortion has become the issue that defines U.S. Catholicism in the nation’s eyes, Thompson pointed out.

It also fuels the perception the church is taking one side—that of the religious right and the GOP—in the nation’s political wars, panelists noted. And the right to reproductive choice has split Catholic laity, Biden included, from their leaders, Francis included. The split, however, is on partisan lines.

The most comprehensive public opinion survey, by the Pew Research Center in 2019, and re-released just before the November election, bears that out. It reported 61% of U.S. adults believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 38% believe it should be illegal. Catholics favored legality 56%-42%. Catholic Democrats favored it 77%-22%; GOPers voted “no” 36%-63%.

Protestants, who are the majority U.S. religious group—combining all streams of that faith–said abortion should be illegal by a 55%-43% margin. But that figure is solely due to white evangelical Protestants. They’re the GOP’s base, though the panelists politely did not say so.

The white evangelicals opposed abortion by a four-to-one ratio. Non-evangelical Protestants support abortion rights by 60%-38% among whites and 64%-35% among Blacks. Believers in other faiths and non-believers supported abortion rights 83%-17%.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops made reproductive rights the strong exception to its otherwise-congratulatory letter to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on their inauguration.

“For the nation’s bishops, the continued injustice of abortion remains the ‘preeminent priority.’  Preeminent does not mean ‘only,’” USCCB President Jose Gomez, archbishop of Los Angeles, wrote to Biden.

“We have deep concerns about many threats to human life and dignity in our society. But as Pope Francis teaches, we cannot stay silent when nearly a million unborn lives are being cast aside in our country year after year through abortion.”

“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.”

Francis was milder in his own, shorter, letter to Biden: “At a time when the grave crises facing our human family call for farsighted and united responses, I pray 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.”

But the bishops themselves are split, too. Cupich, a strong supporter of Francis, is leading the way, with a sharp public rebuke to Gomez. McElroy and Cupich both said Gomez issued his letter to Biden without—in so many words—clearing it with other bishops.

“A collegial consultation” is normal…for statements that represent and enjoy the considered endorsement of the American bishops.” It didn’t happen due to “internal institutional failures,” the Chicago cardinal added.

The issue is important, both in U.S. society and in Biden’s chances of achieving his legislative goals after he entered the Oval Office on Jan. 20. His faith was part of his “working-class Joe” appeal on the campaign trail last year, too. He’s only the second U.S. Catholic President.

John F. Kennedy was the first. Thompson noted he took “the religious issue” on head-on, in a famous 1960 speech to Protestant ministers, many of them evangelical, in Houston—where JFK declared “I am the Democratic candidate for president who just happens to be a Catholic,” saying church dictates would not determine his Oval Office decisions.

“That doesn’t seem to be enough these days,” she wryly noted.

A Catholic who goes to mass weekly, Biden subscribes to—and frequently cites—the teachings of Catholic Social Thought in his speeches and political priorities. They include not just fighting poverty and prejudice but also strong and outspoken support of the right of workers to unionize and collectively bargain, and even strike if necessary, to support themselves and their families.

That’s been a key plank of Catholic Social Thought since the 1890s. Francis in particular emphasizes the rights of workers, accompanied by scathing criticisms of the inequity and oppression unbridled capitalism produces.

The entire session can be viewed at


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.