While 1960 brought us our first Catholic president, 2020 brought us our first prochoice Catholic president—a fact about which Catholics could not be prouder. Every election with a Catholic candidate (especially an election for president) features varying degrees of braying and pearl-clutching by self-appointed arbiters on the question of choice. One such example among the many: 2004 witnessed a highly publicized “smattering of Catholic bishops nationwide [who] suggested they would deny Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry communion”1 because of his support for choice.
This recent election saw no shortage of bishops politicizing their mitres, including a “new” campaign to deny communion to Joe Biden. Perhaps the hierarchy hoped to reprise its 2004 approach, wherein the clergy believed George W. Bush’s persistent courting of Catholics through a “traditional values” message, coupled with the bishops’ “shame” strategy, was enough to capture 53 percent of the Catholic vote and, thereby, the White House itself.
This time, the ploy failed. There’s no question that the volume of religious shaming by Catholic-appointed officials in 2020 was relatively tame compared to 2004, but 16 years of headlines decrying clergy sex abuse and cover-ups may have contributed to their newfound humility. In any case, Catholic voters made it clear that they’re no longer drinking what you’re selling—at least when it concerns the clergy playing in politics. The numbers bear this out.
A GBAO poll of early and Election Day voters for Catholics for Choice found that bishops’ appeals to the Vatican position on abortion fell flat, with fully 57 percent of Catholic voters declaring their support for legal abortion as established by Roe v. Wade. This undoubtedly translated to their preference for Joe Biden (51%) over Donald Trump (47%) in the popular vote and, in an election as close as this one, that support mattered. From the pollsters themselves:
“By a margin of nearly 2-to-1, Catholic voters say politicians who are Catholic have no obligation to vote on issues the way Catholic bishops recommend (30 to 58 percent). The intensity on this measure is noteworthy, with 36 percent of Catholic voters strongly rejecting this notion compared to just 14 percent who strongly support it.”2
Such a stark rejection of the official church position by the laity belies the bishops’ self-declared authority, consequently revealing decay in an institution that once dominated aspects of culture and politics in the United States. Despite this, the Catholic church still possesses a powerful opportunity to drive change in poverty and social justice causes. To help effect such a change, however, Catholic clergy must first rebuild their credibility and relevance for 21st century Catholics. Pope Francis’ recent hints at the acceptability of civil unions suggest he is adjusting the Vatican’s sails to the prevailing winds of public opinion. While his statement caused alarm among Catholic traditionalists, overall reactions of protest on the part of conservative laity may prove too little, too late for a generation of baptized Catholics who’ve stopped listening.
To generate that change—and rebuild the institutional relevance and credibility that are prerequisites to doing so—the clergy must first demonstrate a commitment to the welfare of its flock. In addition to Pope Francis’ comments, the addressing of pressing issues within the lives of the laity would go a long way towards accomplishing this. To list just one example: Catholic clergy must recognize that more than two in three Catholics support individual rights, and oppose discrimination, on such issues as (1) same-sex couples adopting children, (2) Catholic hospitals that take taxpayer dollars and their current ability to deny patient procedures on religious grounds, (3) privacy rights for employees of Catholic institutions, and (4) birth control coverage for employees of Catholic institutions.
Of even greater significance to any attempt of the hierarchy to rebuild credibility and relevance is an acknowledgment that the 2020 election results conclusively established US Catholics as overwhelmingly prochoice—a now undeniable reality that is not going away any time soon. This demonstrable fact propelled Joe Biden, our nation’s first prochoice Catholic president, into the Oval Office, and it promises to reshape “Catholic politics” in the elections to come.
In light of this election’s outcome, will our bishops now listen?
1 “More Catholic Bishops Deny Communion to Pro-Choice Politicians,” Church and State, October 2004 https://www.au.org/church-state/october-2004-church-state/people-events/more-catholic-bishops-deny-communionto-pro.
2 Catholics for Choice 2020 Election Night National Survey Analysis, GBAO Research https://www.catholicsforchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/2020-Catholic-Voter-Poll.pdf.