Too mea-culpa-y to check: Did the Vatican spike Biden criticism from US bishops?

The Vatican may have staged an intervention with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, but they didn’t quite “spike” their criticism of Joe Biden. Perhaps that was the intent, as the new Catholic media site The Pillar reported yesterday. It might also have been a tactical plan to allow for more balance in the reaction to Biden’s inauguration.

One way or the other, The Pillar reported, the Holy See said stop:

The U.S. bishops’ conference held back a statement on incoming President Joe Biden Wednesday morning, after officials from the Vatican Secretariat of State intervened before the statement could be released.

The statement, from conference president Archbishop Jose Gomez, took uncompromising positions on abortion, gender, and religious liberty, warning that the Biden administration’s policy agenda would advance “moral evils” on several fronts. …

The statement was not released Wednesday morning, and bishops were informed by USCCB officials that it remained under embargo, even after one media outlet reported it had been released.

Sources in the Vatican Secretariat of State, others close to the U.S. bishops’ conference, and sources among the U.S. bishops have confirmed to The Pillar that the statement was spiked after intervention from the Vatican Secretariat of State, hours before it was due to be released.

This might have been nothing more than a pause for Pope Francis to publish his standard congratulatory greeting to Biden first. The stoppage might also have been the result of dissension within the USCCB, as the American bishops fought over whether to release their own statement pledging to oppose Biden on abortion and religious-exercise issues:

Sources close to the USCCB say that several American bishops had raised concerns about the statement’s release, deeming it unduly critical of the incoming administration.

Three sources close to the bishops’ conference said that objections to the statement’s release came from Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, among other unnamed bishops.

If the Vatican intended to fully spike the USCCB’s statement, it didn’t succeed. Both messages ended up getting published, although it appears that Pope Francis’ went out first … but not by much:

In a message sent shortly after the second Catholic U.S. president was sworn in, Francis also said he hoped Biden would work towards a society marked by true justice, freedom and respect for the rights and dignity of every person, especially the poor, the vulnerable and those with no voice.

“Under your leadership, may the American people continue to draw strength from the lofty political, ethical and religious values that have inspired the nation since its founding,” Francis said.

“I likewise ask God, the source of all wisdom and truth, 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,” he said.

Fairly standard fare, almost boilerplate in offering congratulations to a new head of state after an orderly (well, somewhat) democratic transition. It’s the kind of well-wishing that leaves diplomatic and personal channels open for positive engagement. American bishops recall much more clearly how the previous Obama-Biden administration dealt with the Catholic Church, and wanted instead to send a warning that they would not be intimidated by Biden’s profession of Catholic identity:

Working with President Biden will be unique, however, as he is our first president in 60 years to profess the Catholic faith. In a time of growing and aggressive secularism in American culture, when religious believers face many challenges, it will be refreshing to engage with a President who clearly understands, in a deep and personal way, the importance of religious faith and institutions. Mr. Biden’s piety and personal story, his moving witness to how his faith has brought him solace in times of darkness and tragedy, his longstanding commitment to the Gospel’s priority for the poor — all of this I find hopeful and inspiring.

At the same time, as pastors, the nation’s bishops are given the duty of proclaiming the Gospel in all its truth and power, in season and out of season, even when that teaching is inconvenient or when the Gospel’s truths run contrary to the directions of the wider society and culture. So, 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.

Our commitments on issues of human sexuality and the family, as with our commitments in every other area — such as abolishing the death penalty or seeking a health care system and economy that truly serves the human person — are guided by Christ’s great commandment to love and to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, especially the most vulnerable.

For the nation’s bishops, the continued injustice of abortion remains the “preeminent priority.” Preeminent does not mean “only.” We have deep concerns about many threats to human life and dignity in our society. But as Pope Francis teaches, we cannot stay silent when nearly a million unborn lives are being cast aside in our country year after year through abortion.

Abortion is a direct attack on life that also wounds the woman and undermines the family. It is not only a private matter, it raises troubling and fundamental questions of fraternity, solidarity, and inclusion in the human community. It is also a matter of social justice. We cannot ignore the reality that abortion rates are much higher among the poor and minorities, and that the procedure is regularly used to eliminate children who would be born with disabilities.

All of this is accurate; it might be harsh, but it’s not unduly so. In fact, given the history of the Obama administration’s hostility to the Catholic Church’s moral positions, the letter seems as gracious as possible. This letter should serve as a warning to the new White House that the issues have not changed, and that Biden won’t get a pass on them just because he sits in the pew. In fact, now that Biden is in the single position where responsibility rests for the disposition of these issues, he should expect even more scrutiny from the bishops than when he was just Obama’s backup or one of 100 members in a chamber.

One can understand why the Vatican might have wanted to give Pope Francis the primacy (heh) in messaging. Thankfully, though, Catholics got to hear both messages. Let’s hope Biden was listening to both too.