NEW YORK — A little more than two months have gone by and there hasn’t been a word from the U.S. Bishops’ task force created to navigate the relationship with the Biden Administration, as the president-elect and his team forges ahead through the transition period.
With inauguration day on Wednesday, it remains unclear the approach the task force will take to work with the second Catholic president-elect in United States history.
“(The announcement) showed the differences within the U.S. Bishops’ Conference about agenda priority because I think some of the bishops were concerned with education as the top priority, others immigration as the top priority and I think for Archbishop Gomez reproductive rights is the priority,” said Jo Formicola, professor of politics and public affairs at Seton Hall University.
“I think they’re looking amongst themselves to decide what they are looking for as they approach the president. I don’t think they are as unified as people like to believe on the surface.”
Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB, announced the working group to close the 2020 bishops conference, held virtually because of COVID-19. Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, vice president of the conference, was tapped to lead the group.
In the remarks Gomez said Biden’s pro-choice beliefs create a “difficult and complex situation” and “confusion with the faithful about what the church actually teaches.”
In a conversation with Crux, Formicola made the case that despite possible divisions in priorities, the decision to create the working group was the right one for the U.S. bishops. She called it a type of “corporate managerial approach.”
“What they’re doing is not necessarily hostile. What they’re doing is strategic planning for the next four, possibly eight years,” Formicola said. “I think it is extremely significant. It shows an ability to re-adapt ideas in a new context. That’s what keeps institutions alive.”
A spokesperson from the USCCB declined Crux request for comment on behalf of Gomez and Vigneron earlier this month.
Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, questions the purpose of the working group now that two months has gone by. At this point, he said he believes it might’ve been to send a “signal of hostility” to the president-elect.
“If it was to send a signal I believe it sent the wrong one because it suggested that the U.S. Bishops’ Conference is friendlier with the Trump agenda than with the Biden agenda, which I believe not true,” Faggioli told Crux. “The way it was done and announced, it didn’t look like a bipartisan effort but more of a hostile signal than anything else.”
He also questions why a task force wasn’t created for someone like former Attorney General William Barr whose ideas on the death penalty contrast with the Church. In July, Barr – a Catholic – stopped a moratorium on the federal death penalty after 17 years, which resulted in 13 federal executions.
Looking ahead, Faggioli cautions that it would be a mistake for the U.S. bishops to make abortion the foremost talking point with the Biden administration.
“The Catholic Church should continue to challenge the Democratic Party on abortion, but certainly it would be a disaster if that becomes the only issue,” he said. “Since abortion became the preeminent issue is has done nothing to advance a real pro-life agenda. It has only destroyed the credibility of the pro-life movement as a bipartisan movement.”
Speaking with Crux, John Carr, founder and director of the Georgetown University Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, said the U.S. bishops shouldn’t look at the Biden administration through a strictly political lens.
“You’ve got to separate the pastoral, Biden’s a Catholic; the policy, what is he going to do; and the politics, he’s a Democrat,” Carr said.
He notes that pastoral challenge belongs to Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington and Bishop Francis Malooly of Wilmington – both of whom have stated they won’t deny Biden communion. The policy should be the work of the USCCB in areas of agreement and disagreement. And politics “is not their world.”
“They need to be political but not partisan, principled but not ideological, civil but not silent, and engaged but not used. They shouldn’t be cheerleaders of apologists, and they shouldn’t be opponents or the resistance,” Carr said.
Ken Hackett identified poverty, immigration, climate change, minimum wage and the death penalty as some of the areas the two sides could find common ground. The former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under Barack Obama doesn’t understand why the focus would be on areas of disagreement.
He traveled to the Vatican with Biden on at least two occasions when he was vice president and notes Biden attended the installation of Pope Francis. He remembers that Biden was always “comfortable talking to clergy and bishops as were people around him.”
Asked if Biden wants to have a productive relationship with the U.S. bishops, Hackett said, “I really do.”
“I think the Biden Administration would like to be involved with the USCCB in areas they find a convergence of interest.”
Formicola also wants people to remember the Church isn’t going anywhere in four to eight years.
“The Church operates on its own clock. Biden will come and go and the Church is still going to be there. They don’t think short term, but people in politics do. They think long term and they look to do the best they can in the context they’re in,” Formicola said.
“If they can’t get everything they want out of Biden they’ll take the pragmatic course and next time around maybe they have another chance.”
Formicola notes that the USCCB is no longer the “only voice of Catholic advocacy in this country.”
She looks at the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Education Association and Catholic social justice organization NETWORK as other organizations with their own agendas.
“There are so many different groups that to think the USCCB is the be all and end all of Catholic political thinking at this point needs to be revised and broadened because there are changes within Catholic advocacy, Catholic voting groups and Catholic demographics,” she said. “I don’t know how far the USCCB can go on its own.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg