Updated: Vatican intervened to spike US bishops’ Biden statement release
A Pillar Post special edition
The U.S. bishops’ conference held back a statement on incoming President Joe Biden Wednesday morning, after officials from the Vatican Secretariat of State intervened before the statement could be released.
The statement, from conference president Archbishop Jose Gomez, took uncompromising positions on abortion, gender, and religious liberty, warning that the Biden administration’s policy agenda would advance “moral evils” on several fronts.
“[A]s pastors, the nation’s bishops are given the duty of proclaiming the Gospel in all its truth and power, in season and out of season, even when that teaching is inconvenient or when the Gospel’s truths run contrary to the directions of the wider society and culture,” Archbishop Jose Gomez wrote in a statement that was expected to be released at 9:00 am Jan. 20.
“So, I must point out that 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. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences,” Gomez added.
The statement was not released Wednesday morning, and bishops were informed by USCCB officials that it remained under embargo, even after one media outlet reported it had been released.
Sources in the Vatican Secretariat of State, others close to the U.S. bishops’ conference, and sources among the U.S. bishops have confirmed to The Pillar that the statement was spiked after intervention from the Vatican Secretariat of State, hours before it was due to be released.
The statement had been debated hotly late into Tuesday evening, but multiple sources say it was the intervention of the Vatican that led to its delay.
Sources close to the USCCB say that several American bishops had raised concerns about the statement’s release, deeming it unduly critical of the incoming administration.
Three sources close to the bishops’ conference said that objections to the statement’s release came from Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, among other unnamed bishops.
Conference sources told The Pillar that while Gomez’ statement might eventually be released, Pope Francis was expected first to release a statement on the Biden administration, at midday on Wednesday. Some sources said there was concern in the Vatican that a statement from Gomez seen as critical of the Biden administration might seem to force the pope’s hand in his own dealings with Biden, who will be the second Catholic president of the United States, and the first in 60 years.
The USCCB did not respond to requests for comment from The Pillar. Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, told The Pillar Wednesday morning that he was in attendance at the Biden inauguration, and unable to speak with a reporter.
In the statement, which was obtained by The Pillar late Tuesday evening, Gomez wrote that he and his brother bishops would speak directly about abortion in the years to come.
“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,” Gomez wrote.
“Abortion is a direct attack on life that also wounds the woman and undermines the family. It is not only a private matter, it raises troubling and fundamental questions of fraternity, solidarity, and inclusion in the human community. It is also a matter of social justice. We cannot ignore the reality that abortion rates are much higher among the poor and minorities, and that the procedure is regularly used to eliminate children who would be born with disabilities.”
The archbishop’s statement comes after he has already expressed the concerns among U.S. bishops about Biden’s pro-choice policy positions, which are at odds with Catholic doctrine.
At the conclusion of the USCCB Fall General Assembly in November, Gomez told the other U.S. bishops that working with the incoming administration, headed by a Catholic who publicly opposed Church teaching on a number of fundamental issues, would present “a difficult and complex situation,” and announced a special working group to coordinate the bishops’ engagement with the Biden White House.
Biden, a lifelong Catholic, often cited his faith during the presidential campaign, and included pictures of Pope Francis, religious sisters, and other overtly Catholic images in his campaign videos.
While many U.S. bishops expressed concern about Biden’s pro-choice policy positions during the 2020 presidential election, others signaled a preference for Biden over the uncertainties of a second Trump term, leaving the most vocal members of the bishops’ conference starkly divided over politics in recent months.
Gomez’ statement on Wednesday was in that context a clear reassertion of the political priorities of the bishops’ conference, which has emphasized in recent years that opposition to abortion is a “preeminent priority” for Catholics in political life.
Biden has moved in recent years to left on several issues of importance to the bishops, especially abortion.
The incoming president spent decades serving in the U.S. Senate before becoming vice president under Barack Obama. As a senator, Biden spoke frequently about his personal opposition to abortion, supporting measures like the Hyde Amendment, which prevent federal tax dollars from paying for abortions. But over the course of his 2020 Democratic primary campaign, Biden reversed his position on abortion funding, and vowed to enshrine the full extent of Roe v. Wade into federal law, effectively precluding states from introducing any limits on abortion.
In the unreleased statement, Gomez said that abortion is not a “private matter” but an issue of social justice,” and noted it is impossible to “ignore the reality that abortion rates are much higher among the poor and minorities, and that the procedure is regularly used to eliminate children who would be born with disabilities.”
Biden has also pledged to reverse Trump-era conscience protections and religious liberty exceptions to the Department of Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate. The rule, as written under the Obama Administration, meant that religious groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor would be obliged to provide coverage for contraception, abortifacient drugs, and sterilizations under their health care plans.
After a second trip to the Supreme Court, the Little Sisters’ exemption was upheld in July 2020, but Biden used the occasion to pledge he would immediately repeal their exemption once in office.
In his unreleased statement, Gomez mentioned some points of unity between the incoming administration and the bishops, including opposition to the death penalty, and a call for better access to affordable healthcare. The archbishop also said he looked forward to engaging with a Catholic president.
“Working with President Biden will be unique... as he is our first president in 60 years to profess the Catholic faith. In a time of growing and aggressive secularism in American culture, when religious believers face many challenges, it will be refreshing to engage with a President who clearly understands, in a deep and personal way, the importance of religious faith and institutions. Mr. Biden’s piety and personal story, his moving witness to how his faith has brought him solace in times of darkness and tragedy, his longstanding commitment to the Gospel’s priority for the poor — all of this I find hopeful and inspiring.”
“I look forward to working with President Biden and his administration, and the new Congress. As with every administration, there will be areas where we agree and work closely together and areas where we will have principled disagreement and strong opposition,” Gomez added.
But the archbishop also emphasized that the Church could not ignore points of essential difference with the incoming administration in favor of areas of agreement, since all of the Church’s social and moral priorities are rooted in the Gospel.
“Our commitments on issues of human sexuality and the family, as with our commitments in every other area — such as abolishing the death penalty or seeking a health care system and economy that truly serves the human person — are guided by Christ’s great commandment to love and to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, especially the most vulnerable.”
Noting Biden’s pledge to foster national unity in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and following an extended period of dramatic cultural polarization, Gomez had written that he hopes that, despite his policy pledges, the new president will instead dialogue with the Church and others of goodwill “to address the complicated cultural and economic factors that are driving abortion and discouraging families.”
“My hope, too, is that we can work together to finally put in place a coherent family policy in this country, one that acknowledges the crucial importance of strong marriages and parenting to the well-being of children and the stability of communities,” said Gomez.
“If the President, with full respect for the Church’s religious freedom, were to engage in this conversation, it would go a long way toward restoring the civil balance and healing our country’s needs.”
—Shortly after Biden was sworn in as president, the Holy See released a communique from Pope Francis extending the pope’s “cordial good wishes and the assurance of [his] prayers” for the new president.
“I pray that 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,” said the pope.
— The full and unchanged text of the statement from Archbishop Gomez was posted on the website of the USCCB shortly after noon, several hours after the initial publication of this report.