Catholic bishops’ effort to deny Biden communion risks alienating church members, a majority of whom support abortion rights

An image of the interior of a colorful, elaborate cathedral beside a close-up image of President Joe Biden.
Some Catholic bishops have expressed interest in denying President Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic, Communion over his abortion stance.

  • Some US Catholic bishops expressed interest in denying Biden communion over his abortion stance.
  • But polls show a majority of Catholics share Biden’s view in support of abortion rights.
  • The bishops could push Catholics further away at a time when church membership is already declining.
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The faith of the US’s second-ever Catholic president became the subject of heated debate last month.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops gave the go-ahead on the drafting of a document that could bar President Joe Biden from receiving communion, because of his stance on abortion.

Biden, one of the most religiously observant presidents in recent decades, has been denied communion before, in 2019 at a church in South Carolina. The priest told the Florence Morning News at the time that he denied Biden communion because “any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching.”

But that pro-abortion stance would also include a majority of US Catholics.

A 2019 poll by the Pew Research Center found 56% of Catholic respondents said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. In fact, many US Catholics’ views on abortion are similar to Biden’s, according to Dr. Patrick Whelan, a doctor and professor at the Institute of Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California.

“The vast majority of Catholics are pro-life and pro-choice,” Whelan told Insider. “It’s a moral issue but they don’t think the government should be making that decision.”

Biden has personally expressed reservations about abortion in the past, but now supports a woman’s right to choose. Whelan said conservative bishops’ decision to target Biden places them at odds with church members who hold similar views.

The clash could be particularly harmful to the Catholic church, where mass attendance has been declining for decades and divisions between leadership and members are already prevalent.

A ‘long train of usurpations’

The National Catholic Reporter, a progressive publication, ran a snarky editorial last month in support of the bishops’ plan to deny Biden communion.

“Just do it, so that if there happens to be a Catholic remaining who is not convinced that the bishops’ conference, as it stands today, has become completely irrelevant and ineffectual, they will be crystal clear about that reality after the conference leaders move forward with this patently bad idea,” the editorial said.

Insider spoke with three US Catholics who support abortion rights, all of whom echoed that sentiment.

“I find it horrific that the bishops would abuse their authority in this way,” said Rebecca Houston, who taught at a Catholic high school in Chicago for more than two decades.

She said it was “shocking” that bishops would potentially deny Biden, a “devout” Catholic, the Eucharist over a political matter, but that to her it’s just the latest example of church leadership’s failures.

Houston said she found Catholic support for former President Donald Trump “egregious.” Catholic voters were split in 2020, with 50% voting Trump and 49% voting Biden, according to AP VoteCast. Meanwhile, Catholic leaders in the US, including the same bishops that could deny Biden Communion, have praised Trump, particularly on issues like abortion and religious freedom.

“It was really the culmination of a ‘long train of usurpations,’ to quote the founding fathers,” Houston said, adding that although she believes “the Church is comprised of many different viewpoints” she “cannot just sit with this anymore.”

‘I would support the church more openly if things like that weren’t happening’

A Gallup poll published in 2019 found many others have had their faith in church leadership shaken as well. The percentage of Catholic respondents who rated highly the honesty and ethical standards of clergy fell from 49% to 31% from 2017 to 2018, when more sexual abuse allegations and questions about the church’s response arose.

That percentage was down from 66% in 2004. Gallup said major drops in trust over the years have clearly coincided with church scandals.

Sean, a 28-year-old Catholic from Chicago, told Insider the church’s response to sex abuse scandals particularly affected him.

“The big open secret of how things are behind the scenes has taken the wind out of my sails,” Sean, who asked Insider not to use his real name, said.

Sean went to Catholic school from kindergarten through high school and still considers his faith a big part of his life, but he doesn’t talk about it much.

He said the bishops targeting Biden over abortion is just another factor making him hesitant to support the Church openly. He was opposed to abortion for a long time, but said his change on the issue was probably the biggest one he’s ever had.

“I get where the Church would be hard and firm on that,” he said. “But I can’t justify making somebody else suffer because of my own personal beliefs.”

Still, Sean said if the bishops were to deny communion to Biden, it wouldn’t greatly affect his relationship to his faith, as he already feels disconnected from church leadership. But it would be another factor deterring him from being more vocal about his religion.

“I think I would support the Church more openly if things like that weren’t happening,” he said.

With church membership on the decline it’s a ‘terrible time’ to focus on this

Church membership in the US has been steadily declining for decades, but the Catholic church has seen an especially sharp decline, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. The percentage of self-identifying Catholics who belonged to a specific church fell from 76% around the year 2000 to 58% today.

“This is a terrible time to try and make this a preeminent issue,” Whelan, who wrote an essay criticizing the bishops over the Biden-communion issue, said. “When people have gotten out of the habit of going to church and they risk insulting a majority of Catholics.”

A much better approach, according to Whelan, would be for the bishops to embrace the country’s second Catholic president and his personal concerns with abortion to find ways to actually reduce the number of abortions. He points to the drop in abortions that occurred under former President Barack Obama, when the Affordable Care Act made contraceptives and other reproductive healthcare available to women who couldn’t get it before.

“Biden has moral concerns about this, like most other Catholics,” he said. “Let’s work together to find common-sense solutions.”

Are you a Catholic who would like to share your thoughts? Do you have a news tip or question about this topic? We want to hear from you! Contact this reporter at kvlamis@insider.com.

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A Texas valedictorian ditched her approved speech in order to blast the state’s new anti-abortion law and it went viral

greg abbott paxton smith
Governor Greg Abbott and Paxton Smith

  • A Texas valedictorian surprised administrators by using her speech to attack Texas’s restrictive new abortion law.
  • Paxton Smith was praised by Hillary Clinton for her “courage.”
  • “This takes guts,” tweeted Clinton.
  • The “heartbeat” bill bans abortions after six weeks and provides no exceptions for rape or incest.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A Texas valedictorian went viral and received praise from Hilary Clinton for her “courage” after she dropped her pre-approved speech and instead used her allotted time to attack Gov. Greg Abbott’s recently-passed anti-abortion law.

Paxton Smith, the valedictorian at Lake Highlands High School Class of 2021, had received approval to give a speech in which she discussed her perception of the media, she told D Magazine.

Instead, Smith attacked the anti-abortion bill signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in May.

Known as the “heartbeat” bill, the law bans abortions after six weeks and does not provide exceptions for rape or incest. The legislation is due to take effect in September, Insider’s Conor Perrett and Madison Hall reported.

“Today I was going to talk about TV and media and content because it’s something that’s very important to me,” said Smith.

“However, under light of recent events, it feels wrong to talk about anything but what is affecting me and millions of other people in the state.

“Recently the heartbeat bill was passed in Texas.

“Starting in September, there will be a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy regardless of whether the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. Six weeks: That’s all women get.”

She added: “Most of them don’t realize that they’re pregnant by six weeks. So before they have a chance to decide if they’re emotionally, physically, and financially stable enough to carry out a full-term pregnancy, before they have the chance to decide if they can take on the responsibility of bringing a human being into the world, that decision is made for them by a stranger.”

A clipped video of Smith delivering the speech was shared more than 40,000 times on Twitter, and she received praise from Hillary Clinton.

“This took guts. Thank you for not staying silent, Paxton,” Clinton tweeted.

In an interview with D Magazine, Smith said that some administrators were angered by her decision to drop the pre-approved speech, and said the school could withhold her diploma. But she said that threat had not materialized.

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NARAL President Ilyse Hogue says the organization is ‘certainly preparing’ for the end of Roe v. Wade

Ilyse Hogue
NARAL president Ilyse Hogue speaks at a protest against the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court on October 22, 2020.

  • NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue said in a recent Daily Beast podcast interview the organization is working to protect women’s reproductive rights with a deeply conservative Supreme Court in place.
  • In a discussion with editor-at-large Molly Jong-Fast, Hogue discussed Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the US and afforded women a constitutional right to the procedure.
  • “A lot of our work over the last few years has been about making sure that we have what we call islands of access — blue states that are codifying the right to abortion, making sure that we have like practice in place where women can go,” Hogue said.
  • For decades, conservatives have sought to overturn the ruling, but lacked a lopsided majority on the Supreme Court, one that they now possess with the installation of Judges Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett to the court.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue said in a recent Daily Beast podcast interview that the organization is working to protect women’s reproductive rights in the wake of a sharply conservative Supreme Court that came to fruition during President Donald Trump’s tenure.

During an episode of “The New Abnormal” featuring editor-at-large Molly Jong-Fast, the discussion about women’s healthcare landed on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the US and afforded women a constitutional right to the procedure. For decades, conservatives have sought to overturn the ruling, but lacked a lopsided majority on the Supreme Court, one that they now possess with the installation of Judges Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett to the court.

Jong-Fast suggested the US could “really lose Roe,” which Hogue further expanded on.

“We absolutely could, and we’re certainly preparing with our partners in the movement for that,” Hogue said. “A lot of our work over the last few years has been about making sure that we have what we call islands of access – blue states that are codifying the right to abortion, making sure that we have like practice in place where women can go.”

She added: “And at the same time, we have to walk and chew gum.”

While the Gorsuch and Kavanaugh nominations left a 5-4 conservative edge on the court, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in September 2020 further reduced the liberal wing’s impact on the court. Trump quickly nominated Barrett to replace Ginsburg, a longtime feminist judicial icon, with the Senate confirming the nomination only days before the November election.

Trump has opposed women’s reproductive rights, from re-enacting the Mexico City policy, a global gag rule that blocks US funding for non-governmental organizations that perform abortions or give abortion referrals, to appointing legions of anti-choice judges to the federal bench.

With the election victory of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, NARAL will soon have allies in the White House once again, but Hogue stressed that a lot of work still has to be done, including Biden rescinding the Mexico City policy.

When Jong-Fast suggested Biden’s administration could include “women’s health czar,” Hogue said she’d support such a move.

“It would send such a clear message that that terrible era that Trump ushered in is over,” she said.

Hogue said the anti-choice pieces of legislation championed by Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were rooted in control.

“It has always been about targeting women and women of color,” she said. “And it’s always been about forcing women to adhere to a very narrow period view of where they think our role in society is.”

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