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Will Joe Biden have a ‘Catholic Problem’?

Four years ago, just prior to the November election, I wrote an article titled “Hillary Should Have a ‘Catholic Problem.'” I started by citing numerous articles in the national press that proclaimed Donald Trump was having difficulty winning over Catholics — a key voting bloc in any candidate’s run for the presidency. In fact, according to Pew Research Center polls, Trump ended up taking 52% of the Catholic vote in 2016 to Hillary Clinton’s 45%.

At this writing, we are still awaiting the final steps in the process of confirming the winner of the 2020 presidential election, but some voter data is already available. According to a poll of more than 110,000 voters conducted for the Associated Press, American Catholics were more evenly split this year between support for President Donald Trump (50%) and Democratic challenger Joe Biden (49%) — who, unlike Clinton, is Catholic.

Both during the campaign and since the election, the press has made much of Biden’s Catholicism, describing in glowing terms how he will be bringing his faith to bear on the issues we’re told Catholics care about most: the environment, racism and fairer wealth redistribution.

Conspicuously absent from these puff pieces, however, are hard-hitting questions about how Biden reconciles his Catholicism with his positions vis-a-vis abortion and related issues. But it’s a fair guess that if those positions were to hew closer to Catholic teaching, Biden would not only not receive the kid-glove treatment in the media; he likely never would have been the Democratic nominee. As it is, Biden’s own words and actions suggest that his positions are contrary to Catholic teaching and, more broadly, American concepts of freedom of speech and religion.

For example, this past July, Biden stated that if he were elected president, he would strip away the protection that the Little Sisters of the Poor have fought up to the United States Supreme Court — twice — to obtain: the dispensation eventually granted by the Trump administration permitting them to refrain from providing or paying for contraceptives for their employees. Additionally, Biden’s campaign website contained his promise to “codify Roe v. Wade into federal law”; to eliminate state laws restricting or regulating abortion; and to repeal the Hyde Amendment, thus requiring taxpayer funding of abortion.

Since the election, Biden, in his capacity as putative president-elect, has begun to name the members of his Cabinet. On Dec. 6, Biden announced that former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is his nominee for secretary of health and human services.

It is hard to see this choice as “unifying” or “healing” in the eyes of pro-life Catholics. Not only is Becerra not a medical professional (as many had hoped Biden’s HHS choice would be) but he was also the defendant in the 2018 National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra U.S. Supreme Court case. The plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of California’s FACT Act, the Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency Act, which Becerra vigorously defended. The statute in question required pro-life crisis pregnancy centers to post specific notices mandated by the state that included the location and availability of abortion services elsewhere. The Supreme Court struck down the law as a violation of the First Amendment right of free speech.

Becerra’s role in the Reproductive FACT Act litigation was not his first foray into abortion politics: He sued the Trump administration in 2017 for the contraception exemption it had granted the Little Sisters of the Poor. During his two decades in Congress, he voted against the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act and the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.

Becerra, like Biden, is Catholic.

Becerra is clearly comfortable using the power of government to compel speech and behavior — even when it conflicts with deeply held beliefs. What else, besides contraception and abortion, might this compulsion be applied to? The Affordable Care Act delegates significant rulemaking authority to the Department of Health and Human Services. Will Biden’s HHS seek to place transgender surgeries and physician-assisted suicide under the umbrella of “health care”? If so, what will the rules be for Catholic — or any other — medical professionals and hospitals that object to these procedures on religious or moral grounds? While the Trump administration has been strongly supportive of conscience protection for health care workers, the Biden camp has signaled its antipathy toward those arguments. Given Biden’s own statements — and his Cabinet choices — it is reasonable to anticipate that an HHS run by Becerra in a Biden administration will be one that quickly announces that Catholic individuals and organizations must provide and/or pay for contraception and must provide whatever the government decides is “health care.”

A recent article in the Jesuit magazine America quotes former President Barack Obama’s faith adviser Michael Wear, who characterized Biden’s political strategy as having been “vindicated” by his performance among Catholic voters in swing states.

If one looks only at the election results, perhaps. More long term? I think that remains to be seen.

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