But where Kennedy had to confront organized opposition from many Protestants, Biden’s challenge hits closer to home. A vocal chorus of conservative bishops, priests and right-wing Catholic media are using their platforms and digital pulpits to argue that the former vice president’s support for abortion rights means faithful Catholics can’t support him. Some of those critics even question Biden’s ability to call himself a Catholic.
“The first time in awhile that the Democratic ticket hasn’t had a Catholic on it. Sad,” Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., tweeted Aug. 11. Biden is a “fake Catholic,” Father Dwight Longenecker told his nearly 39,000 Twitter followers a day later.
For these clergy, Biden’s baptism — a sacrament they don’t have the power to simply wish away — is irrelevant because of who they want to keep in the White House. This spiritual malpractice and blatant politicking comes at the same time President Trump ramps up his religious lobbying. The president’s 2016 electoral college victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were powered in part by White Catholics, whose support is slipping, according to recent polls.
The Trump campaign is circulating a Fox News interview with Cardinal Raymond Burke, in which the former St. Louis archbishop and now Rome-based opponent of Francis, declared that “no devout Catholic, no practicing Catholic” can vote for a pro-choice politician.
In a spring conference call with Catholic bishops, Trump touted his record of appointing antiabortion judges and went on to call himself “the best (president) in the history of the Catholic Church.” Separately, in an Aug. 4 interview with Eternal Word Television Network, a media outlet popular with conservative Catholics, he said: “You have to be with President Trump when it comes to pro-life.”
In 2004, then-Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, another pro-choice Catholic Democrat running for president, faced similar blowback from Catholic leaders. But Biden is running at a moment when the priorities of Francis have shifted the Catholic political narrative in ways that challenge the distorted idea that a single issue defines what it means to be “pro-life.”
A stalwart opponent of abortion rights, Francis also insists that economic inequality, climate change and policies that break up immigrant families threaten the sanctity of life. The pope has been critical of politicians, including Trump, who dismiss these issues as tangential, even describing the lives of the poor and “those already born” as “equally sacred” as life in the womb. After the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in May, Francis said, “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”
While the U.S. bishops conference reflection guide defines abortion as its “preeminent” priority, the pope’s appointments of U.S. bishops who share his more expansive vision has challenged that framing.
“For this president to call himself pro-life, and for anybody to back him because of claims of being pro-life, is almost willful ignorance,” Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., said bluntly during a webinar hosted by a lay Catholic organization in July. When a Catholic bishop in a deep-red state directly challenges a president with widespread support in the antiabortion movement, it’s a sign that stale debates over Catholics and the election are shifting.
Trump’s Catholic allies working to reduce Catholic identity to a single issue are out of step with the church’s long-standing approach to politics and the common good. Though claiming to defend the faith — and even questioning Biden’s — they have traded centuries of church wisdom that challenges both parties’ ideological preferences for raw election-cycle tactics.
The Catholic Church teaches that voting requires an informed conscience, the need to evaluate a candidate’s character and the prudence to apply moral principles to a complex world with imperfect choices. Perhaps the most authentically Catholic thing for Catholic voters to do in November is tune out the partisan noise and draw guidance from that rich theological tradition.