WASHINGTON (RNS) — American Catholic bishops are sending mixed messages about the election of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States, with the head of the U.S. bishops conference taking a more cautious tone over time despite initially congratulating the president-elect on his victory.
Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was among the first faith leaders to officially take note of Biden’s win after several major media outlets on Nov. 7 projected the former vice president’s victory over President Donald Trump.
“We recognize that Joseph R. Biden, Jr., has received enough votes to be elected the 46th President of the United States,” the statement read. “We congratulate Mr. Biden and acknowledge that he joins the late President John F. Kennedy as the second United States president to profess the Catholic faith. We also congratulate Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, who becomes the first woman ever elected as vice president.”
But when Religion News Service asked Gomez about the statement at a virtual news conference on Monday (Nov. 16) during the USCCB’s annual meeting, the cleric appeared to backtrack.
“It’s the tradition of the USCCB just to give formal, simple prayers for the election of a president, so that’s the only thing we wanted to do,” he said. “Obviously we’re respecting the election process, and it is what it is. I think we are trying to be sensitive to that. But it was just a simple acknowledgment of what seemed at that moment was the reality of the political situation in our country.”
On Tuesday, Gomez closed out the conference by making a statement about the election, saying the heads of several bishops’ committees had come to him to express concerns. He referred to Biden as the “president-elect,” saying the USCCB is “anticipating a transition to a president who professes the Catholic faith.”
But while Gomez went on to laud Biden’s policy proposals regarding immigration reform, refugees, the poor, racism, the death penalty and climate change, he dedicated most of his remarks to expressing concern regarding the president-elect’s views on abortion.
“(Biden) has also given us reason to believe that he will support policies that are against some fundamental values we hold dear as Catholics,” Gomez said. “These policies include the repeal of the Hyde Amendment and the preservation of the Roe vs. Wade. All these policies undermine our preeminent priority of the elimination of abortion. These policies also include restoration of the HHS mandate, the passage of the Equality Act and the unequal treatment of Catholic schools. These policies pose a series threat to the common good.”
He added: “When politicians who profess the Catholic faith support them, there are additional problems. Among other things it creates confusion with the faithful about what the church actually teaches on these questions.”
Gomez went on to say the USCCB plans to appoint a working group chaired by Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron to “navigate” the “difficult and complex situation.” The group will be made up of “the chairman of the committees responsible for the policies — policy areas — at stake, as well as the committee on doctrine and communications,” he said.
The shift comes amid continued efforts by Trump and his allies to dispute the results of the 2020 election, despite Biden’s significant vote leads in multiple key swing states. Trump’s campaign has called for recounts and has alleged widespread voter fraud without evidence to support such claims. In fact, many of Trump’s legal challenges have been thrown out of court, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency declared the 2020 contest “the most secure in American history.”
Pope Francis also recently called to congratulate Biden on his win, but Gomez’s waffling echoes varying responses to the election from several Catholic bishops.
Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, was quick to celebrate Biden’s victory, tweeting on Nov. 7, “Congratulations to our second Catholic President and our first female VP of African and Indian roots!”
Others have been more cautious. Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee — who once suggested Biden’s position on abortion constitutes “the ultimate child abuse” — said in a tweet last week that the election had not concluded.
“So technically we don’t have a President-elect until the states certify the vote and the Electoral College votes,” he said. “Until now, it’s the national media who have proclaimed the winner. Just saying….”
But Stika appeared to reverse course within hours, later tweeting out a rebuttal of Trump’s claims.
“There was no massive vote fraud,” Stika said. “Trump needs to concede so a smooth transition can occur.”
Other bishops who have been critical of Biden have now extended congratulations to him. Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, made headlines during the campaign for suggesting Biden is not Catholic, tweeting, “Biden-Harris. First time in a while that the Democratic ticket hasn’t had a Catholic on it. Sad.”
But on Nov. 7, Tobin was among the first to note Biden’s win.
“Congratulations to President-elect Joe Biden!” he tweeted. “We join in praying sincerely for his health and safety and that of his family. With the grace of Almighty God to assist and guide him, may he strive always to govern our nation with wisdom, compassion and moral integrity.”