Biden's complicated relationship with the Catholic Church, explained by an expert
A Q&A with Jack Jenkins about Biden's warm meeting with the pope, his cold reception by conservative US bishops, and more.
By all accounts, President Biden and Pope Francis hit it off when they met at the Vatican late last month. But some conservative US bishops aren’t big fans of America’s second Catholic president.
The big tension point is Biden’s support for abortion rights — a position that puts him at odds with the church’s steadfast opposition to “the moral evil of procured abortion.” In October 2019, Biden was even denied communion at a church in South Carolina by Father Robert Morey, who said “any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching.”
Since Biden took office, a group of conservative Catholic bishops have tried to draft new guidance on the sacrament of eucharist that would effectively enshrine Morey’s position as church policy. But the pope’s warm meeting with Biden sent a signal that such a move wouldn’t be well received by the Vatican, and a draft document published last week suggests Biden won’t be excluded from the eucharist after all.
To get some expert perspective on Biden’s relationship with his own church, the complexities of American Catholics as a voting bloc, and the role Biden’s personal faith plays in his presidency, I called Jack Jenkins, national reporter for the Religion News Service and author of “American Prophets,” a book about the religious roots of American progressivism.
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Jenkins cautioned against assuming that conservative bishops are representative of Catholics more broadly.
“If anything, you often find that American Catholics skew liberal as a rule,” he said, adding that “the pope seems to be coming at President Biden from the left on some issues” as well.
A lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Jenkins, my former colleague at ThinkProgress, follows.
Is there any chance that the push to deny communion to Biden will be successful? And how representative do you think these anti-Biden bishops are of American Catholics broadly?
This conversation around denying communion isn't new. You can trace it back to at least the John Kerry campaign — he is also a Catholic — when there was a small cadre of bishops who threatened to deny him communion because of his abortion views.
What was interesting about that at the time was that it was big news. It became a significant event where reporters would post up in the back of Catholic parishes that they knew John Kerry was going to attend, and they referred to it as “wafer watch” to see whether he would be denied communion at these different parishes.
It haunted his campaign in a big way. There’s some evidence that the campaign was actively trying to find parishes where that would not happen, where the candidate wouldn't get embarrassed. There are those who credit this whole controversy as the significant blow against Kerry and his ability to become president at the time.
So what's weird is you fast forward to Biden running for president, and Kerry wasn't to my knowledge actually ever denied communion — Biden actually was. In 2019, he was reportedly denied communion by a priest in South Carolina while he was running for president. According to a statement by said priest, [it was] because of Biden’s views on abortion. The weird thing was, nobody cared. It didn't get much attention. It didn't get much news coverage. I wrote a story at the time that basically was asking a question — has this lost its political luster, this debate around communion? So it was interesting that it reemerged again after he won the election.
After the election last November, suddenly the US conference of Catholic bishops started talking about this again. In particular, this cadre of conservative bishops, which is a relatively small number, started encouraging or suggesting or sometimes outright stating that they have issues with the president taking communion as long as he holds his views on abortion.
The next thing you know, throughout the first year of his presidency, we've had these debates by these different prelates and clerics. This summer, we had this big fight over this document they're going to forge around communion. And while some have insisted it's not about President Biden, it's not about Nancy Pelosi or any other Catholic Democrat, you had several bishops who mentioned these people by name in the debate. So it's very clear that at least some of these bishops are talking about politics here when they're talking about the eucharist and the communion, and particularly denying that to some Democrats.
So what does this actually mean? Well, technically the ability to deny someone communion is up to the individual bishop. For instance, the Archbishop in Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the first African American cardinal, told me late last year that he intends to continue offering President Biden communion, despite the fact that they disagree with each other. Cardinal Gregory was actually a part of Biden’s inaugural festivities. You have at least one bishop out in California, in San Francisco, suggesting he wouldn't give communion to Biden, but the actual number of bishops who said that are going to stand firm in this position is actually pretty small.
In addition to that, even if they were to produce a document later this month, after their winter convening — the US Conference of Catholic Bishops — that somehow explicitly said that they would want to forbid politicians who support abortion rights from getting communion, that would still require sign off from the Vatican. And just this past weekend [this interview was conducted on November 1], a few things happened.
One, Pope Francis met with Joe Biden. According to Biden, abortion did not come up. But what did come up, according to Biden, is that Pope Francis told him that he is a “good Catholic” and that he should keep receiving communion. And in neither of the official transcripts of the conversation, one issued by the Vatican and one issued by the White House, did they actually include any discussion of abortion. It was on climate change and the pandemic and immigration.
The final point here is that the pope is technically the Bishop of Rome. And that means he has oversight over that archdiocese. And so, just in the last month now, both President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have both had communion in a church, in that Rome archdiocese that is underneath the pope's purview.
So the signal that the Vatican is sending to the US bishops is pretty clear. The Vatican, for the record, hasn't confirmed or denied Biden's account of the conversation that happened between the pope and the president, but there's ample suggestion throughout this process, including the Vatican sending out warning to bishops ahead of their summer meeting suggesting they should tone down their rhetoric on this issue, that this really does seem to be a fight emanating from a small group of conservative bishops here in the United States and not one that's coming in from the top or necessarily from the majority of Catholics here in the United States.
By all accounts, Biden’s meeting with the pope was a pretty amicable. I know photos can be misleading, but I’m sure you’ve seen the tweets contrasting the pope’s scowl around Trump with his smiling face shaking hands with Biden.
Does that signify any sort of possible change in the church’s stance on reproductive rights? What's your interpretation of the fact that it seems like this meeting between the two went off pretty well?
I think three things are true at the same time. One, that meeting clearly went well. It went around 75 minutes of conversation followed by 15 minutes of hanging out, essentially, between Biden and Pope Francis. That is, at least according to many Catholic journalists, unprecedented in its length. That's not only more than twice as long as the pope met with President Trump, it's even longer than he met with Obama. It was a uniquely long interaction. And it should be noted that Biden and Francis's relationship goes back a little ways. Biden actually talked about this a couple days ago while in Europe, mentioning that in 2015 when Pope Francis visited the United States, right before he left, he met with the Biden family to help mourn the death of Biden's son, Beau. Biden met with him again in 2016. This is the third pope that Biden has met. All signs indicate there's a congenial relationship between Pope Francis and Biden — full stop.
And it's also true that there's a lot of overlap between their interests. Biden is concerned about climate change. Pope Francis is deeply concerned about climate change. They have similar goals when it comes to addressing poverty. If anything, the pope seems to be coming at President Biden from the left on some issues.
It is also true, secondly, that the Pope hasn't backed away from the church's position opposing abortion. He's been very clear, and conservative Bishops will often quote Pope Francis reaffirming the church's position and teaching against abortion.
But the third thing that is also true is that throughout Pope Francis's papacy, he has indicated on multiple occasions that while he has done nothing to indicate he disagrees with church teaching on abortion, he doesn't seem to prioritize it as a central animating issue. On the contrary, he has prioritized things like addressing poverty and climate change and concerns for refugees and immigrants as some of the key pillars of his papacy. That's less of a change in the church’s orientation towards abortion rights and more of a change in how the church spends its time, which may help explain why that meeting between Pope Francis and Joe Biden allegedly didn't contain conversation around that topic, despite the fact that it animates so much of the Catholic discourse here in the United States.
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I feel like a lot of the conversation that exists about Biden's relationship with the Catholic church and this conversation surrounding the eucharist gets reduced to the abortion issue. Do you think that oversimplifies things? Are there other issues that lay people who are just following these stories should be aware of that are tension points between Biden and the church? Or can it really be reduced to the fact that Biden is pro-choice?
One subject that often gets forgotten when talking about Catholics in the United States, when it comes to voting, is that there may have been a time, particularly early in the 20th century, when Catholics were a bloc and and you would court the Catholic vote. But at this point in American history, while Catholics make up around 20 percent of the country, and they are actually pretty split politically. If you look at Pew polling, for instance, around 37 percent lean Republican, another 44 percent lean Democrat, and around 19 percent are somewhere in the middle or have some sort of independent status.
And that's telling because when polled, Catholics often disagree with some aspect of church teaching. There's majority support among Catholics here in the United States, for instance, for same-sex marriage. Many polls, including ones conducted by conservative groups like EWTN [Eternal Word Television Network, a Catholic TV network], indicate slim majority support for abortion rights — that abortion should be legal in most cases.
There's also the concern for climate change. If anything, American Catholics skew liberal. You do run into some discrepancies when you're talking about Hispanic and Latino Catholic populations and white Catholics, for instance. White Catholics seem to be more conservative on certain issues. And that is particularly interesting because those white Catholic populations tend to play a major electoral role in swing states, like in the Rust Belt. We're talking about Michigan, we're talking about Ohio, Pennsylvania. You have these sorts of places where they might skew more conservative.
And that's where Biden becomes this interesting figure because his political persona is one that resonates with Catholics. He models himself — and his approach to the intersection of religion and politics — off of John F. Kennedy. And you walk into some of these Catholic homes in parts of the Rust Belt, you're going to see on the wall, a picture of the pope, and often right next to it, a portrait of John F. Kennedy. Biden was shaped by a similar context.
So his ability to peel away some of those votes from Republicans is pretty crucial. That means you're having two different conversations at the same time. One is whether or not Biden's policies and positions resonate with the majority of Catholics. And as we said earlier, since they skew liberal, that does seem to be the case. Does his position on abortion or some other issues jeopardize his ability to maintain support among those white Catholic voters in Rust Belt? That's more difficult to ascertain.
White Catholics in particular were far more flexible in their support for, say, Donald Trump than white evangelicals were. Whether or not they end up voting specifically on a theological issue as opposed to an economic issue, or immigration issues, or climate change is an open question. But I think the real political calculus here isn't whether the majority of the Catholic population in the United States resonates with policies and proposals from Democrats — it's whether Catholics in swing states do.
What's your sense of the relative popularity of Trump and Biden with American Catholics? As you were just detailing, it's not a monolith, so there's some nuance to this, but my sense was that Trump did have a pretty strong appeal among Catholics and a lot of the coverage surrounding Biden, despite the fact that he is Catholic, focuses on these tension points that he has with the church.
According to analysts that are smarter than me, Biden did better among white Christians than Hillary Clinton, but he actually lost ground with some Hispanic and Latino Catholics.
Now, I should caveat that by saying that the Trump campaign heavily targeted Hispanic and Latino Protestants. That's a very specific population that is well represented in states like Florida and a few others. In fact, when Trump launched his Evangelicals for Trump initiative, he launched it in a primarily Spanish-speaking church in Florida, but there does seem have been a move that surprised some analysts that there was — not a majority by any means — but a shift in some Hispanic, Latino, Catholic populations towards Trump.
Regardless of race or ethnic background, when you look at Catholics that have high church attendance, there does seem to be a shift to opposing abortion, for instance. That's something that Biden is often trying to wrangle with. But I don't think it's true that a majority of Catholics are turned off by his position on abortion. And I don't think that that Donald Trump enjoyed majority support with all Catholics all the time. In fact, even among white Catholics, we have evidence that his support among that group bobbed and weaved significantly throughout his presidency in a way that was not true with white evangelicals, who were almost ironclad in their support for him, regardless of scandal.
As a subtext that undergirds all of this, the Catholic Church in the United States, as I mentioned earlier, has often been a part of these partisan rifts that are seen throughout American society. It's actually in some ways a bellwether for the American population. Biden’s attempt to try to hold together a coalition like he did in 2020, pulling together some Catholic voters that voted for Trump in the last election — it remains an open question whether he can do that again in 2024. But it doesn't hurt that he has this chummy relationship with the pope, where the pope makes very clear that the two were having an affable and friendly conversation in a way that did not seem to be the case when he met with Trump.
I'm curious what you think about how important Biden's personal religion is in making sense of his presidency. Are there aspects of Biden's policy agenda that are rooted in his personal faith?
Biden's an interesting figure because he might be the most outwardly religious or visibly religious president we've had in some time, in the sense of, very visibly and regularly attending mass, very visibly carrying around a rosary around his wrist, and he's done that for some time. To be clear, Barack Obama was also very vocally religious in ways that often went unrecognized, but Biden literally wears his religion on his sleeve in a way that we haven't seen in quite some time. And I think his Catholicism has been a part of his political persona for a long time.
One of the stories we dug out of the archives is that when he was a 37-year-old second term senator, he got pulled into a conversation with the pope at the time. That conversation lasted around 45 minutes, which was relatively unprecedented at the time as well. And he just seems to have this deeply held relationship with his faith and doesn’t see it as incongruous with the act of being a politician.
However, he also appeals to a JFK-style differentiation between his faith and whether he imposes those values on other people. He would say that he is personally opposed to abortion, but he had difficulty legislating that position on other people because he thought that that would violate the separation of church and state.
And so, not only is Biden deeply religious, he also seems to have a very particular understanding of how to be religious in public as a politician, and I think that merits more attention. Things like when he was in the Situation Room thumbing his rosary during the killing of bin Laden, or when he would stand backstage before debates during the Democratic primary talking with fellow candidates about his faith, with the rosary around his wrist. At the Democratic National Convention, there was an entire section dedicated just to discussing the importance of Biden's faith, and virtually every single keynote speaker mentioned Biden’s faith and the importance of it.
That's important not only for gauging his political persona — how he presents himself to the world — but also understanding that he comes from this liberal Catholic tradition that was honestly less unusual to see in public a few decades ago, but, I think, is really animating the way that he operates in the midst of this whole pandemic.
I'll close by saying I was speaking to one of the former ambassadors to the Vatican under Obama, who talked to me about something he predicted would happen during Biden's meeting with Pope Francis — and we don't know if this happened — but he talked about how Biden has this penchant for waxing philosophical, for wanting to have a serious religious conversation about broader topics. And that Vatican ambassador said he imagined it might be around the topic of authoritarianism. That's a concern that Biden has often listed in public and in private, that’s a deep concern for him. And the fact people who have been around him, who have worked with him, that they envision would be something he would want to talk to the pope about in a theological context, I think is something that often goes unacknowledged.
Biden does see things through, at the very least, a broad moral lens. That includes the way he approaches policy. While he stops short of imposing his faith on other people, he certainly has a morality that is shaped by a faith that he has ascribed to throughout his life.