The Challenge of Unity

EDITORIAL: Sustained and driven by our own faith and convictions, the Catholic faithful of America should now collectively gather alongside Archbishop Gomez in striving for national unity and reconciliation — and in reminding our new president that these laudable goals are attainable only if he is willing to moderate his own political extremism in the crucial areas of life, sexuality and religious liberty.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural speech after being sworn in on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20 in Washington.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural speech after being sworn in on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20 in Washington. (photo: Jonathan Ernst / Pool/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden’s inaugural address, centered on the theme of national unity and framed deliberately in a spiritual context, aimed to strike a transcendent tone for a badly divided nation. 

The new president identified four specific crises in his remarks — the COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic damage it has caused, racial justice, climate change and political extremism. 

“To overcome these challenges — to restore the soul and to secure the future of America — requires more than words,” he said. “It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity. Unity.”

The most fundamental challenge, however, will be how Biden plans to achieve this much-needed unity. 

As a Catholic newspaper, not a political journal, it’s prudent for the Register to consider President Biden’s address primarily from the perspective of our religious beliefs, grounded in the faith and reason that undergirds Catholic teachings. Biden’s inaugural address was replete in religious language, with the president pledging that “my whole soul” is committed to the cause of unity. 

“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” he insisted. “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”

Certainly too many hearts have been hardened — on both sides of the political divide in the U.S. — by the outcome of the closely contested presidential election and the rancor generated throughout society over the past year by the unanticipated coronavirus pandemic and the protests for racial justice triggered by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis policemen. Many Americans look now to President Biden to put his words into action and question how he might work to soften hearts and renew souls. 

The president’s inaugural address pointed to the advice of one of the greatest of the early Church Fathers. 

“Many centuries ago, St. Augustine, a saint of my Church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love,” he noted. 

Biden cited seven things for which he said Americans share a common love: opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and the truth. While that’s a reasonable enough list, Jesus taught that there are two far more fundamental and interrelated loves that every human being must cultivate: love of God and love of neighbor. 

Still, Biden’s stated desire to restore souls is to be welcomed. And his administration’s urgency in addressing the toll of the four crises his speech highlighted is understandable. While many Catholics might prudentially disagree with the specific measures Biden proposes to deal with these grave challenges, they are all issues that Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops have similarly identified as central concerns.

“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,” the Holy Father said in the message he sent to the president on Inauguration Day. “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.”

Yet there are some critical areas where President Biden’s commitment to love of neighbor and the common good seems profoundly deficient, most notably in the area of abortion. On Inauguration Day, incoming White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that in the near future the president intends to overturn the Mexico City Policy that prohibits federal funding of groups that provide or promote abortion overseas. And on the campaign trail Biden committed to accommodating other destructive pro-abortion objectives, such as striking down the Hyde Amendment and codifying Roe v. Wade into federal law.

Biden’s commitments in the areas of contraception, marriage and gender identity similarly violate the common good, and if pursued necessarily will transgress against the religious liberty of Catholics and other believers whose faith upholds the sanctity of human life and the immutable truths of human sexuality.

Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles was compelled to draw attention to these shortcomings, in the statement he released on Inauguration Day in his capacity as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). 

“For the nation’s bishops, the continued injustice of abortion remains the ‘preeminent priority,’” he stated. “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.”

Indeed, it’s almost impossible to understand how President Biden, as a Catholic who insists that his faith informs all of his public and private actions, can be prepared to expand the availability of abortion’s deadly assault on the lives of unborn Americans and to ignore the grave implications it has on women, families and society in general.

In his statement, Archbishop Gomez stressed that the bishops are acting as pastors, not as politicians, in pointing out the flaws in Biden’s governing intentions. And he praised Biden’s commitment to his faith, commenting, “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.” 

The USCCB president also stressed that Biden’s call for national unity and healing “is welcome on all levels” and “urgently needed,” in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and this moment’s deep political divisions. At the same time, he noted that healing is a gift bestowed only by God and that “real reconciliation requires patient listening to those who disagree with us and a willingness to forgive and move beyond desires for reprisal.”

Near the end of his inaugural address, President Biden remarked: “So, with purpose and resolve, we turn to the tasks of our time. Sustained by faith. Driven by conviction.” 

Sustained and driven by our own faith and convictions, the Catholic faithful of America should now collectively gather alongside Archbishop Gomez in striving for national unity and reconciliation — and in reminding our new president that these laudable goals are attainable only if he is willing to moderate his own political extremism in the crucial areas of life, sexuality and religious liberty. 

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

This Sunday, I’ll Be Going to Church. Will You Join Me?

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” [CCC 2181]