U.S. Catholics now have one of their own sitting in the White House. In addition to joy, there is also harsh criticism, in some cases stronger than that directed at predecessor Trump. Behind this is an old conflict within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Interviewer: With Joe Biden, for the first time since John F. Kennedy a Catholic U.S. president. One would think that Catholics in the U.S. would be happy to have one of their own as president again. Still, there seems to be more Catholic criticism right now than there is of the Trump administration. How do you explain that?
Heidi Schlumpf (Editor-in-Chief, National Catholic Reporter): It must be said in advance: many U.S. Catholics are very happy with this election and rejoice at the thought of a second Catholic president. A Catholic president named Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic who takes his faith seriously. For us as Catholic journalists, it's just a nice change of pace to report on whether he goes to Mass on Sundays or makes Catholic references in his speeches.
Still, quite a few Catholics are not happy with President Biden and use his Catholicism as an attack surface. We see this in the very contradictory statements of various bishops on Inauguration Day.
Interviewer: They refer to the president of the bishops' conference, the Archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose Gomez, who wrote a very critical congratulatory letter that criticizes Biden more than the congratulatory telegram of the Pope. On the other side is the Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich, who openly contradicts his bishops' conference president. Why does the chairman of the Bishops' Conference, who is supposed to be neutral, dare to make such a critical statement in public??
Schlumpf: I would not say that the Episcopal Conference must be neutral. In any case, it is their concern to speak out when they see ies where they feel it is needed. They do that on a wide variety of ies. The problem is that we haven't seen much consistency there in recent years. True, there have been a number of statements criticizing the many problematic decisions of the Trump administration, everything from children in cages to the call for overthrow at the Capitol. But these statements have been short and sweet, often not even mentioning Trump by name.
Now, of course, there are concerns about Biden as well. Concerns mainly over ie of legal abortions. But the statements of the bishops' conference are much longer and mention the president by name. I would even call that excessive.
I think Archbishop Gomez's statements on the day of the inauguration were particularly unfortunate. This is not the time to list in detail the political objectives with which they are not satisfied.
The fact that Chicago's Cardinal Blase Cupich has reacted critically to Gomez's statement is something that has never happened before. For a cardinal to publicly criticize an archbishop in such a clear way is quite an act.
Interviewer: What does this mean for the bishops' conference? Is this a conflict that has always existed, or does this open the gates for a petty war between the bishops??
Smurf: This may seem like something new to people who are looking at the Catholic Church from the outside. Not everyone is up to speed on the internal disagreements of the bishops' conference. Right now, this is making headlines in the secular media, which otherwise would not react. But these disputes between bishops go back decades.
There have been two factions for a long time. Some I would call "culture warriors", many of them still appointed by John Paul II., have their focus on sexual morality ies. On the other hand, there are a few – I think progressive or liberal is not the right word – bishops who are less intent on the culture war. Some of the older ones are still influenced by the Second Vatican Council, and now also already retired. But there are also younger ones appointed by Pope Francis. I think these conflicts will continue for a while.
I think it's pretty problematic. This could be a time for Catholics to rediscover something very positive. We have a practicing Catholic as president who, for the most part, is living his faith and trying to make the most of his new position. The disputes between the bishops kind of overshadow all of that, and in a sense also take away the possibility of evangelization that lies in this new situation.
Interviewer: In the media, the conflict is then broken down to Gomez vs. Cupich. Does that correspond to the facts or is that too simplistic a view?
Smurf: Good question. I would definitely say that as men of God, as priests, as bishops, they have more in common than is often portrayed in the media. The work of Jesus and the Church are certainly close to both of their hearts. They look at it – but from very different perspectives. And they don't stand alone in each case. It's not just these two men, even if it comes to a head in the current situation.
When Archbishop Gomez was elected president of the bishops' conference, there was great joy and excitement. He is the first Latino bishop to lead the conference. On the other hand, he has links to Opus Dei in his past, although it is not currently a member. As Archbishop of Los Angeles, he presides over a growing diocese that has a large Latino component. But one must also see that he has already been passed over several times for cardinal appointments, which would actually be customary for the archbishop of Los Angeles. I would not call him the most extreme, most convinced culture fighter, although he maintains such connections in the bishops' conference.
Cardinal Cupich, on the other hand, is seen as a close adviser to Pope Francis. He is a member of the Pope's advisory council. He is also very clear and also bold when he speaks out publicly, which is why he is seen as a leader of the more progressive bishops.
Interviewer: Do you think Archbishop Gomez's criticism of the new President Biden is justified from a Catholic point of view??
Smurf: It is true that Biden takes positions on abortion that are not in line with Church teaching. In the past he has said that he is personally against abortions, but that making them illegal is not the right way to reduce the number of abortions. In some of its positions, however, it has recently moved more in the direction of a liberal abortion policy, in part because that is in line with the Democratic party line.
Is his position problematic for Catholics? Yes. But if you keep in mind everything that's happening in the United States right now – we almost lost our democracy recently, then of course the pandemic and many other problems – this excessive focus on the abortion ie and making it illegal as the only way to depress the numbers does seem problematic in my opinion.
The interview was conducted by Renardo Schlegelmilch.