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Biden's Support Of Abortion Rights At Odds With Catholic Bishops

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Opponents of abortion held their annual March for Life today. This year, due to COVID-19, it was almost an entirely online event. And the march this year, unlike last year, got no backing from the White House. President Biden supports a right to abortion. That position puts him at odds with his own Catholic Church. The opening prayer at this year's march was offered by the chair of the U.S. Bishops' Pro-Life Committee, Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPH NAUMANN: We seek your blessings on the vast, diverse and energetic pro-life movement in our nation.

CHANG: As today's march suggested, Biden has begun his term in a difficult position with U.S. Catholic leaders. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: It's hard to question Joe Biden's attachment to his Catholicism. He's attended Mass regularly all his life. He turned to his priest to help him cope with grief. On the morning of his inauguration, he went to church.

CAROL KEEHAN: The man so clearly loves his faith.

GJELTEN: Sister Carol Keehan worked closely with Biden for years as the head of the Catholic Health Association.

KEEHAN: You can't know Joe Biden and not know that he loves his faith and that he takes his faith seriously.

GJELTEN: As is seen, Sister Keehan says, in the way a Biden presidency will reflect Catholic values.

KEEHAN: The things that he talks about - dignity, respect, helping the people that have been hurt the most - those are things that resonate with the gospel, resonate with our faith and the faith of many other people.

GJELTEN: These days, it matters what kind of Catholic one is. Biden is hard to pigeonhole. He may not espouse the church positions on abortion or same-sex marriage, but neither does he challenge them. Catholic historian Massimo Faggioli.

MASSIMO FAGGIOLI: Biden has never said, I disagree with the teaching of the church. He has simply said, as a politician, I cannot impose the teaching of my church on the whole population.

GJELTEN: Faggioli is the author of a new book, "Joe Biden And Catholicism In The United States." He thinks Biden exemplifies an old-fashioned Catholicism, characterized neither by loyalty to church doctrine nor by a fashionable defiance.

FAGGIOLI: There is another Catholicism that is shaped by dissent against Catholic teaching. But this is not Joe Biden's Catholicism.

GJELTEN: American bishops in recent years have focused sharply on policy issues. After Biden's election, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, the U.S. Bishops' president, said a task force would consider how they should relate to Biden's presidency. On Inauguration Day, Gomez released a statement guided by that task force that lamented Biden's support for policies that would, quote, "advance moral evils in such areas as abortion." J.D. Flynn, the well-connected editor of The Pillar, a Catholic publication, says Biden may be held to an especially high standard because of his potential influence among American Catholics.

JD FLYNN: For some of the bishops, it's a concern that Biden's support of policies that they think are at odds with the Catholic Church might seem to be a Catholic stamp of approval on those policies.

GJELTEN: But they have to be careful. Pope Francis congratulated Biden on his inauguration without highlighting areas of disagreement. And some American bishops, including Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, have rallied to Biden's defense. With his weekly Mass attendance, Biden sets an example for American Catholics, one that bishops don't want to undermine. Flynn notes how after his inauguration, the bishops issued statements about some Biden policies they supported.

FLYNN: They're trying both to reach out to Biden as a member of their church, as someone who's in the pews every Sunday, but at the same time, speak really clearly about his policies.

GJELTEN: With political divisions in the church growing, there's much at stake in how American Catholics relate to their new Catholic president - just the second in U.S. history.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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