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Biden and the bishops. This probably will not go well

Shortly after President Joe Biden begins his term of office, the U.S. bishops will be derided as culture warriors and abortion obsessives, unwilling to find common ground with the administration of the second Catholic U.S. president. 

President-elect Joe Biden and Pope Francis

In fact, that kind of criticism is already in motion. It began as soon as Archbishop Jose Gomez announced in November that he would form a working group within the U.S. bishops’ conference to assess the unique challenges posed by a Catholic president who is at odds with Catholic doctrine on several key policy fronts, and to develop a strategy meant for working with Biden’s administration. 

After the working group was announced, at least some Catholic commentators took to their platforms to suggest that the U.S. bishops are single-issue crypto-Republicans, who opposed Biden after giving the Trump administration a pass. 

That narrative will be amplified after Biden’s inauguration. The bishops’ conference will be accused of being unwilling to work with Biden, unwilling to seek common ground with his administration, and unwilling to celebrate the election of a Catholic to the presidency.

What will go likely undiscussed, however, is that Biden, not the bishops, will frame his administration’s relationship with the conference. 

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Much will be made in the days to come about the Catholicity of President Joe Biden. Biden will attend Mass before his inauguration, fill his Cabinet with Catholics, and quote Pope Francis in his major speeches. He has employed rhetoric of unity and national healing to frame his administration’s goals. 

But the early signs suggest that the incoming president does not plan to look for common ground on those issues the U.S. bishops have been most outspoken about. 

Biden has pledged to reverse a decades-old prohibition on federal abortion funding, to codify legal protection for abortion into federal law, and to champion the Equality Act, a piece of legislation that the U.S. bishops say would seriously hinder the activity of religiously based social service agencies, hospitals, adoption providers, and schools. Biden has also indicated he will vacate the conscience exemptions of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.

Biden may think the bishops wrong on those issues, but his own plans to act on them suggest that input from the U.S. bishops, and common ground with socially conservative Catholics, will not be a priority for his administration. 

If Biden is unwilling to compromise, accommodate, or dialogue on priority issues to the bishops, the bishops will almost certainly speak out. When they do, they, and not the Biden administration, will be pegged by Catholic commentators as uncooperative. 

That narrative won’t quite fit the facts, nor will it be especially novel.

For the last four years, the U.S. bishops took flack from pro-Trump Catholics, who painted the bishops’ conference as reflexively anti-Trump, or touted an old nickname for the USSCB: “Democrats at Prayer.” 

Some of those Catholics lambasted the bishops’ working group on migration, formed in response to Trump’s election, and even the bishops ad hoc committee on racism, formed after the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally of 2017. 

For the whole of the Trump administration, bishops were encouraged by strident Catholic social conservatives to, as it were, stick to the sacraments, and keep out of politics.

But even while supporting him on abortion, the bishops felt they had no choice except to admonish the Trump administration on issues of importance: immigration, the death penalty, corrosive and divisive rhetoric. The administration set the table, and the bishops responded. The same will be true in the Biden administration. The bishops will feel compelled to speak out on abortion, gender ideology, and religious liberty, and a different group of vocal Catholics will accuse them of being divisive, partisan, and unwilling to see a bigger picture. 

As there was for the last four years, there will also be backlash: no matter what the bishops do or say, some social conservatives will blast them as crypto-Bidenites, just as some progressives spent the past four years saying the bishops were, to a man, members of the MAGA Universe.

Nihil novum sub sole, as the saying goes.

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There will be a few additional complications in the Biden administration. The first is that Biden is a practicing Catholic. When the president supports policy at odds with Catholic social teaching, the bishops will feel some need to speak both broadly about the common good, and specifically, as pastors of a Catholic president. That overlay means that disagreements will feel decidedly more personal, and tension could be considerably amplified. It will also intensify conflict between the bishops, as they disagree publicly on appropriate pastoral approaches.

The second is that Biden supporters and political strategists will look to build a Catholic dynamic that is triangular, not binary. Biden has branded himself a “Pope Francis Catholic,” and both the president and his Catholic supporters will go to great lengths to suggest that Biden and the pope are allied, while the pope and his bishops are deeply divided. It remains to be seen how Pope Francis himself will navigate that tension, or choose to convey solidarity with America’s bishops.

A third complication is the intensified political climate in which Biden will be inaugurated, which has escalated from years of destructive language to a year of actual political violence, which is unlikely to tamp down anytime soon. Intensifying that for Catholics are the popular voices of figures like Archbishop Carlo Vigano, who will likely continue to encourage apocalyptic distrust in American civic institutions and processes, and equal distrust in ecclesiastical institutions and figures. Of course, some skepticism in those institutions is deserved, but in the last few years, a large swath of fervently disaffected Catholics has only gotten larger - larger enough to include with some frequency even a sitting diocesan bishop - and the U.S. bishops seem uncertain how to address that growing reality. 

The bishops will have to contend with changing alliances, philosophies, and fault lines of political thought both within the Church and without. As the nation faces an all-out battle for the future of the Republican party, and a widening gulf between progressives and moderates in the Democratic party, a growing number of Catholics are looking for altogether new ways of thinking - eschewing both libertine progressivism and the old coalitions of the right. Catholics are among the intellectual leaders proposing and testing new political approaches and alliances, and not all bishops are entirely keyed into the emerging debates. The conference, however, would do well to understand them.  

Finally, the bishops’ conference will itself change in the next four years, as the country’s economic crisis will likely compound its preexisting economic woes, and as some bishops and staffers begin to question whether the conference’s model of organization, advocacy, and political engagement is making a difference.  

The Biden administration will not be for the Church simply a return to the clear-cut lines of Obama’s years in office. Too many things have changed. Nor will the next four years resemble the last four.

Still, even while things change, the game remains the same. Politics is about getting a seat at the table. If the bishops want to be heard in Washington, they’ll have to find some new way into the room. Biden hasn’t yet issued an invitation.

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