Biden and Trump Vie for Catholic Votes, Disagree on What Issues Take Priority

Patrick Carolan, Catholic outreach director for the group Vote Common Good, said Catholics should heed the advice of Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, that “a person’s character is what’s as important as any of these issues when considering who to vote for.”

Voting stickers spiral against an American flag.
Voting stickers spiral against an American flag. (photo: Shutterstock / Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — As both the Biden and Trump presidential campaigns court Catholic voters, both campaigns have made efforts to suggest they represent a commitment to Catholic social teaching. But there are marked differences between the candidates’ approaches on issues Catholics say are important to them in the voting booth, especially abortion.

President Donald Trump has received praise for the U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB) for some of his policies, and criticism for other policies.

Trump’s administration has enacted conscience protections for health care workers, expanded protections against taxpayer funding of abortion providers and promoters domestically and overseas, halted federal funding of research using aborted fetal tissue, and worked to end a government mandate that doctors perform gender-transition surgeries upon request.

The administration has offered legal relief for Catholic organizations opposing the government’s contraceptive mandate, including the Little Sisters of the Poor.

At the same time, Trump’s administration has also resumed federal executions after a 17-year moratorium, cut down on the number of refugees the U.S. allows each year, has separated migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, and has begun the deportation of Chaldean Christians from the Detroit metro area—all of which earned criticism from the USCCB.

Trump has also been criticized for issues of personal character, an issue the Biden camp says should be front and center in the campaign.

Patrick Carolan is Catholic outreach director for the group Vote Common Good, which is campaigning for Joe Biden.

Catholics should heed the advice of Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, Carolan said, that “a person’s character is what’s as important as any of these issues when considering who to vote for.”

Carolan shared an anecdote about a friend he said is Catholic and voted for Trump in 2016.

After watching Biden’s friendly interaction with a stuttering boy at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Carolan said, his friend remembered Trump’s apparent mocking of a disabled reporter in 2015. He reconsidered his preferred candidate, Carolan said.

“Because in those two instances, Joe Biden is definitely more Christ-like than Donald Trump. Not that either of them are Christ-like,” Carolan told CNA, before emphasizing again that he was “not suggesting that Joe Biden is Christ-like.”

Catholics may blanch at Biden’s support for abortion, but the administration will not be as extreme on the issue as critics are charging, Carolan said.

“Despite what the Republicans say, Biden’s not somebody who thinks that women should be able to have abortions even when they’re giving birth,” Carolan said. A Biden administration, he said, would be “willing to have discussions” on policies that reduce abortions.

Amid the 2020 campaign, however, pro-life Democrats have decried the party’s “extreme” support of abortion in its 2020 platform. Biden has not responded to their call for a platform that would welcome pro-lifers to the party.

While Biden was criticized during the Democratic primary by some abortion advocates, the candidate supports pro-abortion policies that would expand even upon those that existed during the Obama administration.

Biden says he would “work to codify Roe v. Wade,” the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision that legalized abortion, “as amended by Casey.” The Court’s 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision upheld Roe, but said that state laws could regulate abortion so long as they did not pose an undue burden on women seeking abortions.

Biden supports taxpayer funding of elective abortions in the U.S. through the repeal of the Hyde Amendment; a position Biden adopted last year under pressure from liberal groups. He also opposes the Mexico City Policy, which bars U.S. foreign assistance from funding foreign groups that perform or promote abortions.

And Biden’s health plan would offer public funding of abortions on a mass scale, something that President Obama promised he would not do when the Affordable Care Act passed Congress. Biden says he would set up a public health insurance option which, among other things, would cover contraceptives and abortions.

Biden also says his Justice Department “will do everything in its power” to stop state abortion restrictions, such as parental notification requirements or ultrasound requirements.

Recently, Biden’s selection of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as his running mate reignited pro-life concerns about abortion policy in his administration.

Harris has been an outspoken proponent of abortion. She grilled judicial nominees on the issue while on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and as California attorney general, she supported legislation to force pro-life pregnancy centers to inform clients where they could get abortions.

Harris also has connections to Planned Parenthood. Her presidential campaign communications director, Lily Adams, is the daughter of former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards. And following Harris’ selection as the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Planned Parenthood spent five figures on a video ad calling her “OUR Reproductive Health Champion,” according to the Washington Post.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that laws protecting the right to life are of primary importance in civil societies.

“The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation,” the Catechism says.

Despite the Catechism’s teaching, Carolan told CNA that abortion should not be the primary issue that Catholics consider in the voting booth, adding that the abortion rate is falling no matter who is in office—and has actually declined faster during Democratic administrations.

“We have to have a discussion about abortion, but it can’t be framed in black-and-white, like some people try to make it. And it’s not the only issue,” Carolan said.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, the abortion rate (number of abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age) rose sharply after 1973, the year the Supreme Court struck down state bans on abortion and ruled that there is a right to abortion. The rate jumped from 16.3 to 29.3 between the years 1973 and 1981. It has then declined steadily since to a 2017 rate of 13.5 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44.

Fr. Frank Pavone, founder of Priests for Life, who supports Trump’s re-election, told CNA that the abortion rate, ratio (number of abortions compared to number of live births), and absolute numbers of abortions have all declined, but the drop is due to “complex” factors including increased education on abortion, fewer abortionists and clinics, the rise of pro-life pregnancy centers, sexual mores, and state restrictions on abortion.

Federal and state abortion restrictions will push the number of abortions and the abortion rate down, and not increase it, he said.

Fr. Pavone pointed a report published by the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute that reviewed more than 20 studies in peer-reviewed journals; the institute concluded that birthrates of women on Medicaid increased when the Hyde Amendment took effect in the 1970s, and that the policy “routinely” saves around 60,000 lives each year and has resulted in more than two million lives saved since 1976.

In conclusion, “the more the abortion industry is funded, the more abortions will occur,” Father Pavone said.

Regarding Biden’s promise to codify Roe, the abortion rate, numbers, and ratio “skyrocketed” after the Roe decision in 1973, Father Pavone said, and thus “[i[t stands to reason that a codification of Roe would not lead to a decrease in those numbers.”

Carolan says that a proliferation in free or affordable contraception could also reduce abortions. He pointed to a Colorado program, funded by a grant from Warren Buffett’s family, that provided no-cost intrauterine devices (IUDs) to health clinics throughout the state. According to state officials in 2017, it had resulted in a 64% decline in the teen abortion rate in eight years, state health officials claimed in 2017.

“Of course that opens up another issue then about birth control with the Catholic Church, but those are issues that we have to have discussions about and think about,” Carolan said.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says contraception is a moral evil, explaining that any “action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible’ is intrinsically evil.”

Carolan emphasized to CNA that in his view, and the Biden campaign's, other pressing issues such as the separation of immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the environment, are just as important as abortion.

“Every day 15,000 children die of starvation, of hunger diseases. You think God cares less about those children than those who die of abortion?” he asked.

The U.S. bishops' conference has said that while Catholics should weigh numerous issues in the voting booth, abortion is a priority.

In a 2020 letter, the bishop’s conference said that “the threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed.”

The bishops’ letter adds that “we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.”

Religious freedom has also been at the center of presidential political debates.

Carolan downplayed the issue, telling CNA that “religious freedom” is a “word that’s misused, and it can be used for almost anything.” He claimed that “religious freedom” has historically been used to justify causes ranging from slavery to churches conducting same-sex marriages before Obergefell.

“We need to stop spreading the myth that our religious freedom is being violated,” Carolan said, noting that there is “not a war against Catholicism.”

During the campaign, Biden has said that he would reinstate the Obama administration’s rules for religious nonprofits on the HHS contraceptive mandate—thus potentially forcing Catholic groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, who say the rule violates their religious conscience, to go back to court.

Biden also says he will undo the Trump administration’s “broad exemptions” for religious groups to nondiscrimination laws—thus possibly opening the door to a flood of litigation against religious groups.