The Catholic hierarchy fractured over the inauguration of America's 2nd Catholic president

Biden and Pope Francis in 2015
(Image credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Fifteen minutes after President Biden was sworn in Wednesday, the Vatican released the text of the warm congratulatory telegram Pope Francis had sent the second Catholic U.S. president, after John F. Kennedy. Such telegrams are traditional for the pope — he sent one to former President Donald Trump at his inauguration, too. But Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), also published a letter to Biden, and it was less warm and evidently unprecedented.

"By Wednesday afternoon, a flurry of statements from some bishops seemed to take sides between the USCCB statement from Archbishop Gomez and the pope's statement," the Jesuit magazine America reported.

Gomez, in his letter, insisted that "Catholic bishops are not partisan players in our nation's politics," but said he felt obliged to "point out that our new president has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender," but also "the liberty of the church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences."

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Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, a key U.S. ally of Pope Francis, issued a rare public rebuke of a fellow bishop, saying the USCCB's "ill-considered statement" for Biden's inauguration "came as a surprise to many bishops, who received it just hours before it was released," and bypassed the "collegial consultation" process normally used for "statements that represent and enjoy the considered endorsement of the American bishops." He added that the USCCB must address this "internal institutional failure."

The Vatican was also reportedly displeased with Gomez's letter. A senior Vatican official told America the statement was "most unfortunate" and could "create even greater divisions within the church in the United States."

The odd thing about Gomez's "tone deaf" and "churlish statement," Michael Sean Winters argues in a National Catholic Reporter column, is that Biden had "the most Catholic inauguration in history." A priest gave the invocation, Lady Gaga and poet Amanda Gorman — both Catholic — stole the show, and Biden, who started the day at mass, gave an inaugural address that "was a better articulation of Catholic ideas about governance than any recent document from the conference," Winters said. "And Biden quoted St. Augustine!"

Read the pope's message to Biden, Gomez's letter, and Winters' critique.

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