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(The Hill) President Biden’s Catholic faith is a fundamental part of his identity that he has not shied from sharing with the public in his first months as president.
But Biden’s support for abortion rights has put the second Catholic president in U.S. history at odds with some leaders of the Catholic Church, as well as some of its voters. That tension will be on display in the coming months, particularly as campaigning for the 2022 midterm elections begins to heat up.
Democrats are angling to make abortion a top issue ahead of the midterms after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving a Mississippi law that could weaken the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade nearly half a century ago.
Biden himself is reflective of the sizeable group of Americans who identify as Catholic but also diverge with the church’s opposition to abortion. A majority – 55 percent – of U.S. adults who identify as Catholic say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in April, while 43 percent say it should be illegal in most cases.
“The fact of the matter is that Biden’s position reflects where most American Catholics are,” said David Campbell, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and author of the new book “Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics.”
While Biden’s abortion views contrast with those of top church officials, Campbell said the political fallout is limited.
“It’s a political problem for Biden because he does lean into his Catholicism, so taking heat from the bishops doesn’t help,” he said. “But it’s not as damaging as one might think because a lot of rank-and-file Catholics have an ambiguous relationship” with Catholic leaders.
Andrew Preston, a professor of American history at Cambridge University, added that it’s “not to say that Catholicism is politically unimportant today, just that there’s no automatic link between Roman Catholic faith and politics and hasn’t been for a while.”
He pointed to former Secretary of State John Kerry, also a Catholic, who faced tensions with the bishops when he was the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004.
“But it didn’t mean Kerry abandoned core concerns of Democratic voters, most of whom of course weren’t Catholic,” Preston said. “Biden faces the same dynamic. In short, while we can definitely learn something about Biden from his Catholic faith, it doesn’t tell us much about what he’ll do politically except for reading his general moral compass.”
Biden, who is the second Catholic president after John F. Kennedy, has attended Mass most weekends, even during the coronavirus pandemic. He received ashes on Ash Wednesday and gave up sweets for Lent. One weekend, he traveled home to Wilmington, Del., for his grandson’s first communion.
“Joe Biden is very open about his Catholicism and that may not seem remarkable to people who don’t reflect on American history,” Campbell said. “He doesn’t try to apologize for it, he doesn’t try to hide it; instead, he puts it front and center. It’s a totally different approach to Catholicism.”
After his elder son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015, Biden began wearing his son’s rosary beads from Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. He said it helped him feel connected to his late son in a 2017 interview.
“Biden is fed by his faith but not strangled by his religious commitment,” said Michael Eric Dyson, the prominent historian who is also an ordained minister. “His faith is visceral. It’s palpable, it’s tangible and it’s implicit. You can feel it, you can see it.”
“He doesn’t have to perform it in public to gain attention,” Dyson added. “It doesn’t wear him; he wears it. He’s able to be appreciative without being bombastic about it.”
Despite Biden’s public embrace of his faith, his stance on abortion has caused some bishops to argue that he should not receive communion. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will meet next month to vote on whether to task its Committee on Doctrine with drafting a document on the meaning of the eucharist. The discussion is expected to focus in part on whether the document should talk about public figures receiving the eucharist.
The conference does not have the authority to deny Biden or anyone communion – that power is reserved for individual bishops. Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., has been clear he won’t deny Biden communion, while Wilmington’s incoming bishop, Monsignor William Koenig, has not taken a public stance.
“I would certainly be open to having a conversation in the future with him, but as a bishop I am called to teach the fullness and the beauty of the Catholic faith,” Koenig said at a news conference in April when asked about the issue.
The White House has been careful with its wording on abortion, highlighting Biden’s commitment to upholding women’s reproductive health while largely avoiding use of the word “abortion” itself.
When asked about the Supreme Court’s decision to take up the Mississippi law, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated that Biden and Vice President Harris are “devoted to ensuring that every American has access to health care, including reproductive health care” and committed to codifying Roe v. Wade in federal law.
Abortion is poised to become a bigger issue in the midterm elections, with the Supreme Court ruling likely to come down just a few months before voters head to the polls.
The issue could be galvanizing for the Democratic base, but Biden and the party will need to tread carefully so as not to turn off portions of the electorate that tend to support Democrats but are also more opposed to abortion, namely Hispanic Catholics, said Daniel Cox, resident scholar in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute.
“You’re going to see an increasing movement of the left to make abortion a high-profile election issue. The challenge for Democrats is in doing so they could alienate Hispanic voters,” Cox said, pointing to 2019 Public Religion Research Institute data showing 52 percent of Hispanic Catholics say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases.
However, Biden has significant support among Hispanic Catholics – 80 percent approve of his job as president, according to recent Pew polling data – and experts note that Catholic voters’ views tend to align more with those of the political party they support than with the teachings of the church.
“Catholics are not a monolith,” said Greg Smith, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center. “The policy preferences of Catholics don’t always align with the positions of the Catholic Church.”