President Joe Biden speaks at the White House in Washington April 20. (CNS photo/Tom Brenner, Reuters)
President Joe Biden speaks at the White House in Washington April 20. (CNS photo/Tom Brenner, Reuters)
DENVER — The majority of U.S. bishops in a recent survey were at best “uneasy” with the second Catholic president in U.S. history, said Catholic analyst Francis Maier, yet Joe Biden’s presidency could in an unexpected way be good news for the Catholic Church.

Maier, a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), spoke at the John F. Scarpa Conference on Law, Politics, and Culture at Villanova University on April 23.

“Over the past six months,” he said, “I’ve done confidential interviews with 29 bishops about the future of the Church for a project I’m pursuing through Notre Dame’s Constitutional Studies program. Twenty-eight of those men were American. These are mainstream guys. No cranks and no outliers. They come from very different backgrounds. They serve in a wide variety of pastoral conditions, urban and rural. And they lead dioceses in every region of the country, in 20 different states.”

“None was encouraged by Joe Biden’s election. Not one.”

“They had conflicting opinions about Donald Trump, but all were uneasy about Biden. And they were very critical of his vice president, Kamala Harris — especially given Biden’s questionable durability — for her track record as California’s attorney general and later as a U.S. senator,” he added.

“Several of the bishops I spoke with expressed concern about the Democratic Party’s shift to the left; its curious interpretation of constitutional rights; and its appetite for increased government controls fed by the COVID pandemic. None of this, by the way, translated into praise for the Republican Party. That’s another story.”

Maier said most of the bishops he interviewed felt that cooperation could and would occur between the new White House and U.S. bishops on at least some issues of mutual concern. But overall, their common view of Biden’s long-term impact on Church-related matters was strongly negative.

“One senior bishop compared Biden — unfavorably — with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo,” he said. “Cuomo makes no claim to being a good Catholic, and thus in some ways is more honest and easier to work with because of it. The problem with Biden is precisely the appearance — highlighted by the media — of his piety.”

Maier argued that “Biden’s rosary beads, his public nods to saints, and his attendance at Mass all serve to normalize his administration’s policies and actions that directly attack key Catholic beliefs on abortion, sex, family, and marriage. This has the effect of marginalizing bishops as ‘doctrinaire,’ out of touch, and seemingly aligned against the message of mercy preached by Pope Francis.”

“To the degree this is a conscious strategy, it works,” he continued. “It works, as several of the interviewees noted, because bishops may have the mandate to teach and lead, but in practice, in our current environment, they’re generals without armies.”

“We also need to remember that the civil war inside the Church over what Vatican II really meant, and which issues should have priority in working for the common good, is not over,” he said. “Quite the opposite: During the current pontificate, with its perceived ambiguities, the frictions have taken on new heat. Some of those frictions exist both among the bishops themselves and also within their staffs. And of course, civil authority and Catholic elected officials are happy to exploit that.”

Maier said that in his 43 years of working for the Catholic Church, “some bishops are mediocre or incompetent,” while “a few are bad guys with serious moral flaws, or toxic ambition, or simply a lack of real faith. But most — and I mean the great majority — are good and decent men doing the best they can for their people, and doing it pretty well, in a very difficult job.”

So he argued that “before we accuse our bishops of collaboration or cowardice in dealing with a Joe Biden or a Donald Trump, we’d do well to show them the same understanding we expect for ourselves. The idea that America’s bishops are in the pocket of the political right or anyone else, which seems to be a favorite theme of some commentators, is simply ignorant nonsense. And frankly the real concern we should have about any ‘Biden effect’ and its impact on the Church in the coming decades is us — those of us who are laypeople.”

Maier said that some of the Catholic bleed-out in the last 20 years can be attributed to the clergy abuse crisis, which “quite rightly shocked and angered a lot of people.”

“But it’s also too convenient an alibi, because the exodus started well before the crisis,” he said.

“The decline in our Catholic numbers is simply the truth forcing its way to the surface through layers of self-deception that we’ve accumulated as a Church over half a century or more. The truth can be painful, but it’s never bad. The truth makes us free: free to change; free to remember who we are as Catholics and why we’re here; and free to do better.”

This is why, Maier argued, “Joe Biden is good news — not happy or comfortable news, but good news — because in his appealing personality; his sunny smile; his reassuring words; and the duplicity of his administration’s actions, he embodies so much of our American Catholic moment.”

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As pressure on faithful Catholics grows, “the tepid leave and the faithful grow a spine,” he said.

“God will handle the rest. That’s the central lesson of the cross and all of Christian history — God brings life from death, and victory from failure and defeat.”

Maier concluded: “We’re here in the world to share in the story of salvation and be seeds in the lives of others who carry the story forward. If we do that, we’ve done what we were created to do.”