Joe Biden’s Cabinet Full of Catholics — at Odds With Church Teaching on Settled Issues

Observers say that in an age of diminished Catholic identity, looking at government officials’ policy choices, not merely their religious affiliation, is the best way to gauge coalescence with Catholic social teaching

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during an event in the State Dining Room of the White House January 21, 2021 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during an event in the State Dining Room of the White House January 21, 2021 in Washington, DC. (photo: Alex Wong / Getty)

As Joe Biden assumes his presidential duties this month, he won’t be the only Catholic stepping into a prominent role in the federal government. In fact, the nation’s second Catholic president has picked an unprecedented number of his co-religionists to play vital roles in his administration. 

But while some Catholic media cheered this development and suggested it may indicate the Biden presidency might be less troublesome for the U.S. Church than has been widely anticipated, other observers aren’t chalking up the Catholic-heavy composition of Biden’s cabinet as any kind of clear “win” for the Church and its social priorities. In fact, several Catholic experts have expressed deep concern about many of Biden’s picks, who, like him, are Catholic but buck clear teaching on fundamental issues.

“The Catholic members of the Biden cabinet seem to have distinguished themselves by their distance from the Church’s settled teaching on the inalienable dignity and value of every human life from conception until natural death,” Catholic commentator George Weigel told the Register, adding that the picks also suggested challenges ahead related to religious freedom and the conscience rights of health-care workers.


Promoting Abortion

Several of the nominees have, in fact, not merely tolerated legalized abortion or prioritized remedies other than limiting access for reducing abortions, but have actively worked to expand abortion rights. 

The incoming secretary of commerce, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, supported and signed into law a 2019 bill codifying abortion protections in her state. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Biden’s pick to be energy secretary, vetoed 2008 legislation that would have banned late-term abortions. And the once “personally pro-life” Marty Walsh, mayor of Boston and Biden’s pick to head the Department of Labor, received a 2016 “Men for Choice” award from NARAL recognizing his dedication to abortion rights.

Two Catholic nominees, in particular, may significantly contribute to wider access to abortion, given the agencies they’re set to head. 

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power may be a fan of Pope Francis and Dorothy Day, but in contrast to both, she has celebrated the expansion of abortion access both domestically and in places like her native Ireland. As head of USAID, the federal agency responsible for distributing aid internationally and its $20-billion budget, Power will likely play a role in directing funds to organizations facilitating abortions abroad, especially given Biden’s pledge to do away with the Mexico City Policy.  

Even more concerning to many Catholics is Biden’s pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Xavier Becerra. Pro-life advocates have warned that Becerra, currently California’s attorney general, has a clear and established history of using the law to undermine pro-life and religiously-affiliated organizations. Most notoriously, he attempted to force groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor to follow the Obama-era contraception mandate, even after the Trump administration’s HHS had offered broad exemptions. Becerra seems to have lost that battle, after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Little Sisters in a related case and sent the California case back to a lower court to be decided in light of the Supreme Court’s decision. But now, barring a failure to confirm his nomination before the Senate, he’ll be heading the federal agency responsible for implementing national health-care policy.

“Religious liberty is in danger with people like him in power,” said Robert Royal, a frequent guest on EWTN and the editor of The Catholic Thing. “We may hope that the Senate may see him as just too radical to approve as a cabinet member.”

Several Catholics interviewed for this story made clear that abortion is not the only dimension of Catholic social teaching and that several of Biden’s Catholic nominees can be expected to advance policies more consistent with the Church’s vision on important issues like immigration and care for creation than did the Trump administration. However, refusal to follow such a basic teaching on such a grave matter is a telling indication of a merely accidental, or at least fragmented, following of Catholic social teaching in other areas, and certainly not an approach that is centrally or essentially formed by the Church.

“Concern for these [other] matters cannot be an excuse for ignoring the single-most morally repugnant feature of modern America: the slaughter of close to a million innocents yearly in the womb,” said Royal, adding that Catholic’s in political office should resist the mistreatment of all human beings, whether or not it’s a position that “represents” overall public opinion. “I’m not impressed, therefore, with the quality or quantity of Catholics in the Biden administration.”


Conflict Ahead

Given the deep-seated ways in which the Biden administration’s priorities may run contrary to the Church’s commitments — something Archbishop José Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), addressed in his statement on the new president’s inauguration — Royal said he doesn’t expect the cabinet’s heavily Catholic composition to do anything to mitigate conflict between the two entities. In fact, he said it would be more troubling if the Church didn’t come into conflict with the Biden administration, given the latter’s errors.

As Bill McCormick, Jesuit priest-in-formation and political theorist at St. Louis University (SLU), pointed out, though, this is somewhat par for the course.

“Every presidential administration has come into conflict with the Church, and Biden’s will be no exception. [Jesuit theologian] John Courtney Murray predicted that Church-state conflict would center around marriage and the family, including sexuality and education. Time has proven him tragically prescient.”

Stephen White, executive director of the Catholic Project, likewise doesn’t expect the presence of Catholics in the Biden administration to limit tensions with the Church.

“If Catholics are any less likely to fall afoul of the Church than are non-Catholics, I’ve seen little evidence for it. It certainly hasn’t been the case in previous administrations.” 


A Bipartisan Problem 

White raised a compelling point, which is part of a larger issue: Although the Biden administration is facing unprecedented scrutiny from Catholic commentators given the religious affiliation of the president and much of his cabinet, inconsistent adherence to Church teaching by Catholic politicians is not unique to this presidency, nor to the Democratic Party. 

During the Trump administration, for instance, Catholic Attorney General William Barr advanced a program of aggressive reinstatement and implementation of the federal death penalty, which was condemned repeatedly by the U.S. bishops for violating the teachings of Pope St. John Paul II and his two successors.

“The fact that someone is Catholic these days tells us next to nothing about what they believe — politically or religiously,” said White, who has previously noted that the unprecedented degree of Catholics in positions of political influence is no more than a “political accident,” given the weak attachment and even opposition of many politicians to the teaching of the faith they claim to follow.

Russell Shaw, a former secretary for public affairs for the bishops’ conference and a Catholic journalist, agreed, at least regarding a Catholic politician’s political beliefs. In fact, he said there’s “something rather childish” in celebrating public officials merely because of their religious affiliations.

“It may have been a big deal for Catholics to have other Catholics in cabinet positions 50 or 60 years ago, but it’s hardly a big deal now. What matters now are their policy positions, not their religious affiliation.”


Distinctively Catholic

One explanation for this change over time is the widespread assimilation of Catholics into the U.S. mainstream and the subsequent decline of a distinctive Catholic identity. 

John Carr, director and founder of the Institute for Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and former USCCB policy director, says this movement has produced “good news and not such good news,” which is reflected in Biden’s appointments.

The good news, he said, is that the nominations indicate that Catholics are no longer marginalized, but are engaged in political life and play “a big part in running the country.”

“And the not-so-good news is that [generally] these cabinet members are probably like a lot of Catholics, in that our faith is a part of but is not the central part of our life,” said Carr, who supported Biden’s candidacy and has called other pro-lifers who did so to “speak up, stand up, and be visible” in resisting the Democratic Party’s extreme position on abortion. Very often, he said, “people’s politics shape their faith, instead of the other way around.”

Holy Cross Father William Dailey also attributes the bifurcated politicization of Catholics, in part, to assimilation throughout the 20th century, during which he says Catholics strived to show that they “were ordinary Americans, not more loyal to the pope than the Constitution.” That striving, however, has risked losing a consistent way of living — and governing — as Catholics.

“How do we live as citizens, but also recognize that, our hearts captured by Christ, we are also aliens?” said Father Dailey, a fellow at Notre Dame’s de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, expressing a somewhat wistful desire that Catholics in Biden’s administration would support the rights of the unborn and that Catholics of the previous administration might have done more to stop child separation at the border or the prioritization of executions.


Renewed Political Culture

McCormick at SLU said that Catholics are right to point out the selectivity with which many Catholic politicians follow Church teaching and to desire that they “live out the Gospel in full.” But he also thinks Catholics should temper their expectations.

“Put simply: Most of those politicians are products of a system whose effects they are not likely to overcome, much less recognize,” he said.

Nonetheless, McCormick encouraged Catholics to seek changes in the political culture, “all the while sustaining deep hope.” He suggested that Catholics might focus at the state level, collaborate with partisan opponents to promote aspects of Church teaching they might be sympathetic toward, and renew the sorts of social institutions and associations that have long characterized Catholic life in the United States.

With seemingly less and less space in places of political power for Catholics intent on following the whole of Church teaching, they might not have many other options.

“That is a key gift Catholics can give the U.S.,” he said. “Perhaps the Biden years can be a time for Catholics to gravitate toward such creative structures.”