The second Catholic president of the United States is the first to hold office in the midst of an American intra-Church crisis. John Kennedy never had to deal with the kind of conflict currently roiling the USCCB or the opposition of so many bishops to the papacy. But Joe Biden takes office just as the situation inside the U.S. Catholic Church becomes reminiscent of the Americanist controversy of the late nineteenth century. What divided the bishops then were the warnings put forth by Leo XIII in Longinqua oceani (1895) and Testem benevolentiae (1899)—namely, admonitions against embracing the “American” models of religious liberty and separation of church and state. New York Archbishop John Corrigan sided with the pope, against St. Paul Archbishop John Ireland and his allies, whom Leo ultimately disavowed for their “Americanist” views. The split had long-term effects on the Church.
One of the things that divides the episcopate now is Biden himself. Many have criticized his Catholicism and are opposed to his presidency (just as they have criticized and opposed Pope Francis). But the critics also seem to fear the beginning of a social revolution—taking an apocalyptic view of the moment, seizing on issues of sexual morality and abortion in particular as an anchor of continuity with the past. What happened on January 20, the day of Biden’s inauguration, reveals the degree of ecclesial turmoil. A statement signed by USCCB President José Gomez, offering pro forma congratulations to and prayers for the new U.S. president and his administration, quickly pivoted to abortion, once more highlighting it as the “preeminent priority.” The statement, which struck quite a different tone from the congratulatory message with which the USCCB welcomed Donald Trump four years ago—and from Pope Francis’s note of congratulations to Biden—would have appeared before Biden’s swearing in had the Vatican not intervened and delayed it. (One can only assume that the leadership of the USCCB has a nostalgia for the Trump presidency that the Vatican and many U.S. Catholics don’t.) Gomez’s statement drew quick and unprecedented condemnation from some of the conference’s own members, most notably Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, who that afternoon tweeted: “Today, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an ill-considered statement on the day of President Biden’s inauguration.” He went on to criticize not only the content but also the process by which the statement had been crafted, reviewed, and released. Other bishops and cardinals, including Newark’s Joseph Tobin, were more discreetly critical.
No matter that the next day the USCCB issued formal statements praising Biden’s executive orders returning America to the Paris Agreement, reinstating DACA protections, and overturning Trump’s Muslim ban. The wrong note had already been struck, one far out of tune with the relief many people here and the world over, Catholic and non-Catholic, felt with the passing of the Trump presidency and its racism and political violence. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy had days earlier condemned the January 6 assault against the Capitol as “the logical trajectory of the last four years of President Trump’s leadership of our country.” But the January 20 statement from the conference was one more indication that a number of U.S. bishops are indifferent to what happened in this country under Trump, and saw no reason not to support him a second time.
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