NEW YORK — Experts are divided on the U.S. bishops’ conference decision to create a working group to navigate the relationship with president-elect Joe Biden.
Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced the new working group chaired by Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit in unscheduled remarks to close out last week’s U.S. Bishops meeting. As part of the statement he said it creates a “difficult and complex” situation that the second ever Catholic president-elect supports abortion rights.
However, some don’t understand the timing of the announcement.
“There’s a lot of divide among the church. Divide amongst bishops. Divide among Catholic voters and there has to be more of a trying to bridge this divide,” St. John’s University political science professor Brian Browne said in an interview with Crux.
“I think the rollout of this, or the lack of specifics, the mixed message, they’re not off to a good start and the thing they really have to figure out is how to move forward collaboratively,” he said.
Browne’s now interested to see if the working group will take a collaborative or confrontational approach. Although there’s the well-documented disagreement on abortion, Biden and the Church are aligned on other issues like climate change, immigration and racial justice.
It’s a question of where the bishops choose to focus, Brown said.
“There’s the old political adage that if you’re not at the table you’re on the menu. I think the bishops would be wise to be at the table and go through the menu of issues and how to address them,” he said. “How they move forward on the issues and the timing is going to be critical for the overall tone of the next four years.”
University of Notre Dame history professor John McGreevy is less concerned about the timing of the announcement and more with the creation of the working group in the first place.
He questions why the group was created if there wasn’t something similar when President Donald Trump was elected in 2016.
“It’s sad that they felt the need to be antagonistic right away,” McGreevy told Crux. “The wrinkle there is that the culture warriors with the bishops’ conference remain almost unequivocally focused on abortion and gay marriage and his support for gay marriage and pro-choice trumps everything else.”
He added the approach isn’t within the spirit of Pope Francis, referring to recent comments from Cardinal-designate Wilton Gregory about the importance of finding common ground.
In an interview with Crux, Gregory said it’s important to have dialogue on issues where the two sides agree because “they are shared values.”
However, Stephen White – the executive director at the Catholic Project at the Catholic University of America – said he understands why Gomez decided to establish the working group.
“A Catholic president who campaigned on a promise to expand and subsidize abortion presents unprecedented pastoral challenges,” White told Crux. “It would be surprising if the bishops didn’t want to think carefully about those challenges.”
He said he thinks the working group “will help the bishops present a more united front in interacting with the new administration, which will allow the bishops to exert greater influence on certain matters.”
Seton Hall political science professor Jo Renee Formicola also wasn’t surprised about the working group, but she saw the announcement as less about Biden and more about taking a pragmatic first step in advancing the bishops’ agenda with a new administration.
“It always comes down to the same thing. They want to maintain autonomy and gain as much freedom as possible in order to carry out the mission. A religious one not a political one,” she told Crux. “They must use the political process to make that happen.”
Formicola said Biden has to understand that there are people that question his faith because of his abortion stance and recognition of gay marriage.
“[The bishops] are very well versed in how to attain the things that are their top priority and they will go for common ground first and then they will push as they start to see openings. That’s how the church works politically,” Formicola said. “They’re going to push abortion because it’s their number one priority but they’re also going to take what they can get.”
Despite the areas of agreement, White said he expects the contentious issues to be the working group’s focus.
“Joe Biden has defied the Church’s teaching on various fundamental issues for decades with few serious repercussions. I don’t think the bishops can put the genie back in the bottle even if they wanted to,” he said.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg