‘He Can’t Compromise With Catholic Bishops’
The majority of Catholics believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. So why is it so polarizing?
Who: Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, a nonprofit working on behalf of Catholics who support reproductive freedom
Grade for Biden’s first 100 Days: B-minus
“He has had to juggle so many priorities, and he inherited so many messes. … But I do think he has a ways to go when it comes to reproductive rights, and I would love for him to see this not only as an issue of justice, but an issue of women’s freedom.”
This interview with Rewire News Group’s president and editor-in-chief, Galina Espinoza, has been edited for space and clarity; to watch the conversation in its entirety, please visit here. For more on the Biden 100 series, visit here.
Rewire News Group: Can you talk about what it’s been like the last four years seeing different religious groups stand with President Trump—despite positions that seem to clearly come into conflict with key religious values?
Jamie Manson: I can speak to that particularly as a Catholic. Catholic teaching is very clear about certain issues that President Trump clearly had no respect for. One of them is care for the immigrant, care for the vulnerable. The other one is that the Catholic Church is fundamentally opposed to the death penalty. So to watch him just flagrantly disregard those teachings—all while watching the U.S. bishops tacitly still support Trump—was absolutely devastating, honestly.
How do you imagine it was being explained on Sundays?
JM: I think what probably many priests did on those Sundays when they were giving homilies was return it to President Trump being the “most pro-life president in history.” And why is that? Because the U.S. bishops said that being anti-choice was the preeminent issue, it was superior to all other issues, and that is why they supported Trump. But it shows this profound dishonesty about how they really feel about life, because Trump otherwise had such disregard for human life it was agony. And it’s very painful having watched the church for the last 20 years go through this terrible phase of reckoning with its protection of sexual abusers and then to see it throw its support behind Trump, it just questions their fidelity to any of their teachings.
Abortion is reported on as a polarizing issue—but we know that nearly 70 percent of Americans want it to be legal. As do the majority of Catholics.
JM: Absolutely! The majority of Catholics believe in abortion rights, believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. We know that pregnant Catholics get abortions at the same rate as everybody else, so the way the bishops make it this polarizing issue just is not a reflection of the reality on the ground, in the church.
President Biden has declared himself pro-choice. Talk to me about the significance of that, being that he is a Catholic.
JM: Well, Biden is one of the first presidents in a long time that actually is a practicing person of faith. Not only is he Catholic, he goes to Mass at least every Sunday, sometimes even more frequently than that. He has referred to his faith very regularly to support why he fights for justice, for human rights, that that is all grounded in his faith and in the unique social justice teaching of our tradition. So it’s quite significant because it’s not just an identity or cultural phenomenon for him. It’s very much who he is, as a person of faith.
He’s been on a bit of a journey when it comes to his relationship about abortion—how do you think he came to be pro-choice?
JM: I mean, obviously, I’m not inside his heart or his mind, but there is for him a fundamental belief in human dignity and in social justice and that comes from his Catholic training. We have this fundamental belief as Catholics in the preferential option for the poor, which means that the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized should be our first priority. Those are the people we need to not only take care of first, but give the best of the best. And I think that’s reflected in how he has dealt with other controversial issues, such as same-sex marriage, such as transgender rights, contraception access—these are also things in violation of Catholic teaching, but he realizes there’s a deeper issue of human dignity and social justice at work here.
What are some signs of progress you’ve seen from him?
JM: We all got a little bit nervous when on Day One he didn’t rescind the global “gag rule,” so it was good to finally see him do that. Certainly, having Xavier Becerra as our Health and Human Services cabinet member is a very big deal; Becerra is a Catholic and he has one of the best records on pro-choice policies. Resuming funding of the UN Population Fund was huge. So these are all really good markers.
And yet he hasn’t said the word abortion as president!
JM: He’s a Catholic from a certain generation, and that could have a lot to do with his reticence. It doesn’t help that the U.S. bishops make it into this taboo topic that subjects people to terrible punishment if they disagree. The moment Biden was elected, we went back to that conversation about denying him communion. But what I’d like to say to Biden if I had the chance is that it does not help anyone to keep reinforcing the stigma of abortion; no one is served by this. That is what the bishops want: to make abortion taboo, a black-and-white issue not to be discussed, and that’s not true to the Catholic tradition.
Is there a risk of pushing President Biden to do too much, too soon on these issues?
JM: From a Catholic perspective, I do worry about who he feels he needs to show his gratitude to, be in allegiance with. The funny thing about progressive Catholics is they are wonderful on issues related to immigration, the poor, the death penalty—a host of justice issues. But even for progressive Catholics, abortion remains quite taboo.
In fact, if you remember the [Democratic National Convention] over the summer, there was a nun speaking, there was a priest who prayed for “unborn life” in the womb, so clearly Biden is signaling to the progressive Catholics who feel a bit icky about abortion, “Hey, I’m still your guy.” And so I do worry that he’s going to continue to be reticent because he feels like he still needs that Catholic vote. Some folks are concerned—and I’ve heard this— that if we push too far on abortion, he may put off people of faith who are progressive but still uncertain about abortion. So I think we’re going to have to be patient, but all the while, people like me have to be educating Biden and other progressive Catholics on this issue.