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Biden could redefine what it means to be a Catholic in good standing. Catholics are divided on whether that is a good thing.

President-elect Joe Biden leaves St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church after attending Mass in Wilmington, Del., last month. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Bishops have already created a working group to deal with the “difficult” situation of his presidency. Priests from Maryland to Fort Worth have preached that the president-elect isn’t even really a Catholic. But to many millions of Catholics who voted for him, Joe Biden and his focus on healing are a compassionate, Pope Francis-like model of their faith.

Catholics’ views on Biden seem to serve as a proxy for what kinds of Catholicism they think most urgently needs to be advanced. Should it be more focused on qualities like engagement and empathy or on purifying doctrine? Is it as interested in Catholic teachings on poverty, refugees and the environment as those on sexuality and reproduction, or should it continue to place abortion law above all?

Despite these divisions, Biden is poised to make his mark on American Catholicism. For the next four years, the country will see its president go to Mass every Sunday, take out a rosary at times of contemplation, and quote his favorite childhood nuns and Catholic poets. And it will watch him try to navigate polarizing issues of special interest to his church that John F. Kennedy never had to take a position on — abortion, LGBTQ rights and climate change among them.

“It’s potentially a game-changer in American politics,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, head of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. When Biden has spoken in detail about his faith, he has emphasized the values of welcome and decency, and that the worst sin is the abuse of power. With those images in the White House, Cummings said, “there is a potential to expand our national conversation about faith in public life beyond the abortion question. When you look at the whole picture you see someone who is a person of faith in a way [President] Trump is clearly not. Trump focuses on this world and on himself.”

Trump drew praise from conservative religious leaders in particular for his emphasis on protecting their religious liberties and exemptions. But even many supporters worry that Trump’s baldly transactional relationship with religion and profane behavior at a time when the country is secularizing has been seriously harmful to the credibility of faith groups. The churchgoing, Bible-quoting Biden — who struggles publicly with his church’s doctrine — offers a contrast people like Cummings find more deep and genuine.

But others worry about Biden as a Catholic role model.

“Most people] don’t pay attention to bishops but they do to the U.S. president. And when the president is almost diametrically opposed to the most basic human right — that creates problems across the board,” Jayd Henricks, former executive director of government relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said of Biden’s policies to protect abortion access. “How [the bishops] address this is tricky, but if they don’t, then President Biden can redefine the perception of what it is to be a Catholic in good standing.”

To be sure, as the United States becomes increasingly secular, the impact of a public official’s faith in 2021 America is complex and more diffuse than in past generations. Biden is also not the first Catholic president, and follows Catholic speakers of the House, Supreme Court justices, and celebrities like Stephen Colbert and Lady Gaga.

Indeed, the conditions and discussion around Biden’s election show how much has changed in the country since Kennedy ran in 1960. He famously had to appear before 600 clergy members — many Southern Baptist — and, in an effort to win their approval, had to explain his belief in an America “where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope,” and “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” In 2020, Biden had perhaps the most extensive faith-outreach operation of any Democratic presidential candidate ever.

Kennedy enjoyed rock star-like support among Catholics, winning 80 percent of their vote; Biden won Catholics by a narrow majority. While in the decades after 1960, Catholics of all political persuasions kept a photo of Kennedy on the wall, next to one of the pope, in 2020 nearly 2.4 million people have watched the Rev. Ed Meeks preach on YouTube an anti-Biden sermon called “Staring Into the Abyss.” Meeks, of Christ the King parish in Towson, is among at least a dozen U.S. priests who made news this fall with sermons challenging Biden’s Catholicism and saying his support of pandemic lockdowns and same-sex marriage are threatening to the American way of life.

But Catholic clergy, like U.S. Catholics, have varying views on Biden. Division among the U.S. bishops over how to react to Biden’s election apparently led to two shifting statements by U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops President José Gomez of Los Angeles.

On Nov. 7, he issued a statement congratulating Biden and recognizing him as only the second Catholic president in a country that’s one-fifth Catholic. “Catholics have a special duty to be peacemakers, to promote fraternity and mutual trust,” Gomez said. Then, 10 days later, after hearing concern from some of the Conference’s other leaders, Gomez wrote a new statement, announcing a working group to deal with the “difficult and complex” situation of a Catholic president promoting policies including abortion access and broad civil protections for LGBTQ people.

Biden’s faith commitments should lead to positive policies from the church’s perspective, Gomez wrote, on topics including fighting the impacts of racism, supporting migrants and opposing the death penalty. But Biden’s other views, including on the “preeminent priority” of abortion, are especially problematic coming from a Catholic, Gomez wrote, in part because “it creates confusion.”

Biden is also likely to face off against his church in the courts, where he will also be up against a solidly conservative — and majority Catholic — Supreme Court eager to protect the religious freedom of traditional faith groups when it comes to things like not hiring or offering health-care coverage to openly LGBTQ employees and their families. Biden has said he supports the Equality Act, a sweeping bill that would update the Civil Rights Act to ban discrimination against LGBTQ people. The church opposes the act, as well as the decision of the city of Philadelphia to end a foster care contract with Catholic Charities rather than allow it to exclude same-gender couples. A decision in that key case, which was heard Nov. 4, is pending.

For now, Biden’s transition team and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are warily circling one another, knowing the Trump-to-Biden policy change will be dramatic. Both groups declined to comment for this story about the church-White House dynamic they are expecting, or for which they are preparing.

One apparent land mine for Biden was removed late last month when Wilton Gregory, D.C.'s archbishop and a newly minted cardinal, said he would not deny Biden Communion. That is in keeping with Gregory’s predecessors and their approach to the Catholic politicians in D.C., including a then-Vice President Biden. Biden then went to church at spots including St. Matthew’s Cathedral downtown, Dahlgren Chapel at Georgetown University and Holy Trinity parish in Georgetown, a Catholic familiar with his worship routines said.

Biden is not the first politician to be caught up in the Communion wars. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) was first barred in 2004 by a Springfield, Ill., priest who cited the senator’s support of legal abortion. Diocese of Springfield Bishop Thomas Paprocki reaffirmed the ban in 2018 after Durbin voted against a bill that would have outlawed abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. In 2004, 16 U.S. bishops made public statements that they would do the same to then-presidential candidate John F. Kerry, also a supporter of abortion access. That trend spurred the founding of the group Catholic Democrats, which tracked bishops’ comments from 2004 until 2013, when Pope Francis took office. In that period, about half of U.S. Catholic bishops had made statements to the effect that “you can’t be a good Catholic and vote Democrat,” said Steve Krueger, who heads the group.

Francis has since changed Catholic culture, Krueger and others said, by emphasizing a wide range of things addressed in Catholic teaching, in particular the plight of refugees, human loneliness in the Internet age and the moral urgency of climate change.

Those who embrace Francis’s philosophy hope Biden’s focus on healing and unity will allow for a spirit of compromise. There’s some evidence to suggest it might. Biden was among the Democratic leaders during the Obama administration who pushed for more compromise on touchy issues, including how wide religious exemptions can be from the Affordable Care Act, specifically from mandatory coverage of contraception or abortion. Some Catholic Democrats who are antiabortion or moderate on the issue wonder if, as president, Biden will offer conservatives concessions.

Regardless, even supporters of Biden say he’ll have to be more frank about how he balances his strong personal Catholic faith and his advocacy for some liberal policies of which his church disapproves if he wants to keep together the coalition of Americans who are attracted to his spiritually framed message of empathy and unity.

“A lot will depend on how he portrays that conflict,” Stephen Schneck, an adviser to Biden on Catholic outreach, said of the president-elect’s disconnect with the church’s positions on things like gay rights and abortion access. “He has to do it in a much more comprehensive way. He’ll have to have a way of talking about that. Those things have significance and can move people’s hearts.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Sen. Richard Durbin was barred from Communion in 2018. Durbin was initially barred by a Springfield, Ill., priest in 2004, a penalty reaffirmed by the Springfield bishop in 2018. This version has been updated.