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Speakers: Cardinal Gregory’s pastoral role could prove to be influential with President Biden

Participants in a Feb. 1 online discussion on “President Biden, U.S. Bishops and Pope Francis: How to Promote Catholic Principles in a Divided Church and Nation,” sponsored by the Georgetown University Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life included, in the top row left to right, NBC News correspondent Anne Thompson; Helen Alvaré, a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University; and moderator Kim Daniels, co-director of the initiative. In the bottom row are John Carr, also a co-director of the initiative, and San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy. (Screen grab from the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life)

As the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory may be the Catholic leader in the best position to bring about dialogue on matters of interest to the U.S. Church with the Biden administration, said one of the panelists for a Feb. 1 online forum on Catholic relationships with the president.

NBC News correspondent Anne Thompson said that in a climate where prominent leaders of the Church are sparring in public over how to approach an administration that is led by a Catholic president, Cardinal Gregory may be the key member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who could influence President Joe Biden. Cardinal Gregory has pastoral authority for the Archdiocese of Washington, where Biden now lives and is attending Mass, and Bishop W. Francis Malooly has pastoral authority in the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, where the president has his permanent residence.

Thompson is a Catholic who has covered Pope Francis and written about Biden and his faith. She was one of the panelists for a panel discussion on “President Biden, U.S. Bishops and Pope Francis: How to Promote Catholic Principles in a Divided Church and Nation,” held virtually and sponsored by the Georgetown University Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. 

NBC News correspondent Anne Thompson (Photo courtesy of Georgetown University's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life)

In opening the event, moderator Kim Daniels, newly announced as co-director of the initiative, described Biden as: “a Mass-attending, rosary-saying, ‘On Eagle’s Wings’-singing Catholic.” She made note of the many Catholic touches to the inauguration Jan. 20, including Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral before the ceremony; the inaugural prayer given by Jesuit Father Leo O’Donovan, a former president of Georgetown University; and the inaugural poem by Amanda Gorman, a parishioner of St. Brigid Church in Los Angeles. 

“Yet for me and many others,” Daniels said, it was a disappointment that steps Biden announced to protect the most vulnerable in society “did not include crucial protections for the unborn child.”

Kim Daniels, co-director of Georgetown University's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life  (Screen grab courtesy of the initiative) 

Delving into the program topic, Thompson and another panelist, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, said the Catholic Church and Biden share common goals, referenced by Pope Francis in his Inauguration Day letter of congratulations and prayers for the new president

In part, the pope’s message said: “At a time when the grave crises facing our human family call for farsighted and united responses, I pray that your decisions will be guided by a concern for building a society marked by authentic justice and freedom, together with unfailing respect for the rights and dignity of every person, especially the poor, the vulnerable and those who have no voice. I likewise ask God,… to guide your efforts to foster understanding, reconciliation and peace within the United States and among the nations of the world in order to advance the universal common good.”

Several times in the Georgetown program the discussion turned to how the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and individual bishops would interact with the Biden administration, given the president’s political positions on certain issues, including his support for abortion rights and the use of government funds for abortion. That question arose on Inauguration Day, as the USCCB president, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, also issued a statement offering Biden his congratulations and prayers but expressing concerns at length. In part, it said: “I must point out that our new president has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.”

The difference in emphasis of the two messages sparked several prominent U.S. prelates to issue their own statements that day and soon after, commenting about whether Archbishop Gomez’s approach was unnecessarily confrontational or an appropriate acknowledgement of important differences. Additional commentary focused on whether Biden should be sanctioned by the Church – such as by denying him reception of the Eucharist – over his political positions that are at odds with Catholic teachings on the dignity of all human life.

San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy (Screen grab courtesy of Georgetown University's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life)

During the Georgetown program, Bishop McElroy warned against the “weaponization of Eucharist” as a way to get Catholic politicians to base their political actions on the Church’s teachings.

“I do not see how depriving the president or other political leaders of Eucharist based on their public policy stance can be interpreted in our society as anything other than the weaponization of Eucharist and an effort not to convince people by argument and by dialogue and by reason, but, rather, to pummel them into submission on the issue,” Bishop McElroy said.

All of the program’s participants said dialogue and engagement are key to cooperation between the Church and the administration. It was in that context that Thompson pointed to Cardinal Gregory as potentially playing an essential role. 

Thompson said she thinks that Pope Francis and those who follow his lead for engagement will have more influence with Biden and the administration than the USCCB will if it takes a confrontational tone. 

“As Bishop McElroy pointed out, the person in the USCCB who really can influence Biden is Cardinal Gregory,” she said. The cardinal, “has made it clear he is not going to keep President Biden from receiving Communion. He’s not going to bring a gun to the table. He has an opportunity on many important issues.”

As to how to pursue dialogue, a few differences arose among the panel.

Helen Alvaré, a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University and a former public information director for the bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, didn’t preclude the idea of sanctioning Catholic politicians, noting that this had been done in the past. She pointed to excommunications of some politicians in the mid-20th century who persisted in supporting school segregation despite laws requiring racial integration.

She said that current politics on abortion are far more than disagreements about how to approach a problem. “So many issues are questions of differences of opinion of how to protect the common good. This is different,” she said. “The Church has 2,000 years of theology, it can bring this to bear on what is a theological question.”

But in the spirit of the approach sought by Pope Francis, she suggested that in dialogue with Biden and his administration, “don’t just state our rules, give our reasons” for the positions the Church takes. 

In a photo from 2018, Helen Alvaré, a law professor at George Mason University's Antonin Scalia Law School in Arlington, Virginia, speaks during a dialogue about "Overcoming Polarization in a Divided Nation Through Catholic Social Thought." At right is John Carr, the co-director of Georgetown University's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. Those two also participated in a Feb. 1 virtual panel discussion sponsored by the initiative. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

John Carr, co-director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, said being engaged with an administration is essential in trying to trying to represent the Church’s policy interests. He lamented that “at the very moment we should be coming to make our case for human life and dignity we were highlighting our differences,” in the inauguration-related statements. 

Carr, the former executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the USCCB, said the Church’s role in public policy “should be political but not partisan, principled but not ideological.”

“We ought to be willing to work with people where we find common ground,” he said, “but we can’t fail to call out differences.” 

He later quoted syndicated columnist Mark Shields’ quip about how he judges the quality of an organization: “by whether they’re looking for converts or heretics.” Carr said the Church’s approach to the administration might most effectively be to “encounter ‘the least of these’ and take them into the public square in a way that pursues converts, not searches for heretics.”

(Patricia Zapor is the senior correspondent for the Catholic Standard. This article includes some information from a related article by Mark Pattison of the Catholic News Service.)