Catholic bishops oppose some Biden programs, support others

The bishops support administration programs for immigrants, the poor and the environment, while fighting to end abortions and to protect their institutions from what they see as illegitimate interference.

President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House, April 2, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

(RNS) — It is well known that Catholic bishops oppose the Biden administration on abortion and gender issues. Less well known is that they are allies of the president on other issues, such as immigration, the environment and help for the poor. 

The bishops’ support and their opposition can be seen by looking at press releases from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued in President Joe Biden’s first year in office.

In the past 12 months, the bishops have put out 25 press releases on the Democratic president’s abortion policies. The first came two days after the inauguration, when the bishops responded to the president’s and the vice president’s statements on the Jan. 22 anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.

“It is deeply disturbing and tragic that any President would praise and commit to codifying a Supreme Court ruling that denies unborn children their most basic human and civil right, the right to life, under the euphemistic disguise of a health service,” said the bishops.

As the administration went to work making abortion easier after four years of Republican rule, the bishops responded with deep concern. They complained when the Food and Drug Administration allowed distribution of abortion pills outside of a doctor’s office and condemned expanded fetal tissue research.

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A week later, the bishops criticized an executive order eliminating the Mexico City policy, which forbade funding of foreign entities that performed abortions. In July they complained about House passage of H.R. 4373, which they said “could force recipient countries that have strong legal and cultural opposition to abortion to embrace it in order to receive desperately needed help for their people.”

The bishops took special aim at the administration’s proposal to rescind the Title X rule forbidding the funding of contraceptive programs in agencies, such as Planned Parenthood, that also perform abortions. Calling it  “terrible policy,” they said the change to Title X was “immoral, impractical, and may also be unlawful.” The bishops wanted the government to draw “a bright line between abortion and family planning.” 

Congress comes in for as much opprobrium for assisting the White House’s dismantling of abortion limits. In press release after press release, the bishops criticized the House of Representatives for abandoning the Hyde Amendment, which long forbade the use of federal funds for abortions. “This 45-year-old bipartisan policy is under unprecedented threat with both the Administration and key members of Congress committed to eliminating it,” said the bishops.

The elimination of the Weldon Amendment, which protected from discrimination in funding hospitals that refused to perform abortions, the bishops said, “would be an egregious violation of conscience rights by forcing individuals and entities to perform, pay for, or otherwise participate in an abortion against their beliefs.”

“By proposing to eliminate the Hyde and Weldon Amendments, among other longstanding, bipartisan pro-life provisions,” complained the bishops, the Congress “is staking out an extreme position of forcing taxpayers to pay for the taking of innocent unborn human life and forcing health care providers to participate in this injustice.”

Despite the elimination of the Hyde and Weldon amendments, the bishops acknowledged, “There are aspects to President Biden’s budget proposal that will assist vulnerable people.”

The appropriation bills “include many other provisions and funding for critically-needed services that we support.” But they added, “As we have said before, ‘being “right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life.’”

As Biden pushed for his three legislative priorities — the American Rescue Plan, the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better plan — the bishops were selective in their support.

The American Rescue Plan largely met the bishops’ approval: “There are provisions in this bill,” they said, “that will save people from extremely desperate situations and will likely save lives.”

But they went on to say, “it is unconscionable that Congress has passed the bill without critical protections needed to ensure that billions of taxpayer dollars are used for life-affirming health care and not for abortion.”

In this Jan. 20, 2021, file photo, President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, attend Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle during Inauguration Day ceremonies in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In this Jan. 20, 2021, file photo, President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, attend Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle during Inauguration Day ceremonies in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The bishops expressed gratitude for Senate passage of the infrastructure bill, applauding “how the package affects those on the margins of society and protects God’s creation.”

But they had a long list of what was missing, including progressive programs such as housing and rental assistance, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and access to in-home care for family members, support for child care, paid sick leave, parental leave and making the child tax credit permanently refundable.

They saw Build Back Better as a chance to strengthen social safety net protections for workers and families, legal status for undocumented people and action on climate change. But they insisted that “any proposal to expand health care coverage avoid an expansion of taxpayer funding of abortion.”

The bishops saw some of the administration’s LGBTQ goals as limiting the church’s ability to manage  its schools and other institutions according to its teachings.

They expressed disappointment that a provision in the infrastructure bill “would advance a false understanding of gender and sexuality, and we affirm that Catholic institutions must be free to serve everyone with respect and dignity in accordance with our beliefs.”

The bishops expressed particular concern that provisions in the Build Back Better Act “could effectively exclude faith-based providers from childcare and pre-K programs.” They also wanted Catholic institutions exempted from some LGBTQ rights rules, which muddied for them the administration’s push for racial equity.

“It is unfortunate that the goal of racial equality is partially conflated with the imposition of new attitudes and false theories on human sexuality which can produce social harms,” complained the bishops.

They especially objected to the Equality Act, which “represents the imposition by Congress of novel and divisive viewpoints regarding ‘gender’ on individuals and organizations. This includes dismissing sexual difference and falsely presenting ‘gender’ as only a social construct.”

“Rather than affirm human dignity in ways that meaningfully exceed existing practical protections,” they concluded, “the Equality Act would discriminate against people of faith.”

Instead, they supported the Inclusion Act, which “would remedy this unjust discrimination, and maximize the benefit to thousands of children in need, by enabling all foster care and adoption providers to serve the needs of parents and children in a manner consistent with the providers’ religious beliefs and moral convictions.”

As a result, the bishops welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which overturned the city’s decision to defund religious adoption agencies that would not sponsor kids with gay couples. 

But if abortion and LGBTQ issues put the church at odds with the White House, they strongly supported the reversal of Trump-era restrictions on immigration. The topic triggered about the same number (25) of press releases in Biden’s first 12 months as did abortion.

The day after the inauguration, the bishops said, “actions by the new Administration are important first steps toward ensuring that immigration enforcement in our country is balanced and humane.” The same day, a separate press release applauded “President Biden’s restoration of the DACA program, and we also strongly encourage him and the U.S. Congress to immediately enact legislation that provides a path to citizenship for Dreamers.”

A third press release welcomed reversal of the ban on visas to people from some Muslim countries.

President Joe Biden, left, shakes hands with Pope Francis as they meet at the Vatican, Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. Photo by Vatican Media

President Joe Biden, left, shakes hands with Pope Francis as they meet at the Vatican, Oct. 29, 2021. Photo by Vatican Media

More press releases followed, “welcoming” and “applauding” the administration’s designation of temporary protective status for Venezuela and Haiti. The bishops also welcomed “House passage of the American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would help many hardworking immigrants reach their God-given potential, not only for their benefit but for that of the entire country.”

But by mid-April, the bishops began pushing the administration for further action. The USCCB called for increasing the number of refugees admitted to the country. When the administration raised the ceiling to 62,500 for the current fiscal year, the bishops called it “a step in the right direction” but called for the number to be doubled to 125,000, which the administration did in October.

By August, the bishops were complaining loudly that the administration was not fulfilling its promises on immigration.

“In February, we welcomed Executive Orders signed by the President related to removing barriers and restoring due process in the legal immigration system,” said the bishops. “Strong due process is vital for the rule of law to thrive in accordance with the common good, and we cannot have a ‘fair, orderly, and humane’ immigration system without robust due process protections.

“Therefore, we call on the Administration to reverse course on its expanded use of expedited removal, reexamine its use of Title 42 authorities, and truly promote due process, consistent with past commitments.”

At the end of the year, the bishops lamented the reimplementation of Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as the “remain in Mexico” policy. “Unfortunately, attempts by the Administration to make this program ‘more humane’ — however well intentioned — will not cure its inherent faults, nor will they alleviate its inevitable toll on human lives,” they wrote, predicting that the policy would “perpetuate the existing tragedy of family separation.”

Meanwhile, the bishops pleaded with Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform. “The Biden Administration has identified immigration reform as a priority, and we look forward to seeing it realize that commitment through congressional engagement,” said the bishops.

“Dreamers—together with Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure holders, migrant agricultural workers, and undocumented essential workers—deserve relief,” they wrote.

The bishops also supported many administration programs that helped the poor. “We are grateful for the Biden Administration’s early actions to address urgent food and housing needs for those experiencing hardship during the COVID pandemic,” including the extension of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium.

The bishops also supported the administration’s increasing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, which “will be a meaningful improvement in the lives of millions of people.”

The bishops also welcomed the administration’s decision not to renew contracts with private prisons. They encouraged “the administration to consider similar policies in the future regarding civil immigrant detention facilities.”

RELATED: Catholic bishops reprimand Trump as often as they praise him

Global warming was consistently an area of common ground, with the bishops commending “the Biden Administration’s commitment to climate stewardship and environmental justice, consistent with the decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.”

They liked how the administration was attending to “other environmental realities that deserve greater attention: Climate adaptation and resilience; Just transition and revitalization of communities reliant on the energy industry; Environmental justice; Clean air, clean water and the conservation of lands, ecosystems, and agriculture; Economic growth, clean infrastructure, and opportunities for workers; Commitment to the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol and to protecting the Amazon rainforest.”

They also appreciated “the Biden Administration’s recent commitments in anticipation of COP26 to reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions within our own borders and to increase climate finance contributions for adaptation and mitigation in low-income countries.” They said, “These new developments reflect an integral ecology that promotes care for creation and strengthens the bonds of solidarity between nations, particularly between the rich and the poor.”

In all, they found that “President Biden’s environmental executive orders resonate deeply with an integral ecology that listens to the ‘least of these’ (Mt 25:40).” 

The bishops’ response to the Biden administration should not be surprising. During the Trump administration, the bishops did the same thing in reverse. They strongly condemned the administration’s actions that harmed refugees, immigrants, the poor and the environment while supporting its action on abortion and government regulations of religious institutions.

Would that other political actors could be as consistent and nonpartisan.

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