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DETROIT – The head of the Catholic Church in Detroit has been chosen to lead a new national group that seeks to guide how Catholics should respond to President-elect Joe Biden and the contentious issue of abortion.
Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who leads the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit, was named this week by Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), to head the new group on the last day of the bishops' annual fall meeting.
Gomez struck a conservative tone in his remarks in emphasizing abortion and by saying Biden supports policies that "attack some fundamental values we hold dear." Biden spoke last week with Pope Francis in a call seen as a show of unity that was praised by liberal and moderate Catholics.
Now, the Detroit Archbishop, who is also vice president of the USCCB, could play a leading role in how the Catholic Church interacts with the Biden administration on abortion and other policy issues.
Experts say the creation of the group signifies that Catholic leaders in the U.S. may be adopting a more hardline stance towards Biden, an abortion-rights Democrat who would be the second Catholic president of the U.S. and has talked often about his faith. Liberal Catholics worry it would put the Church at odds with Biden, the first Catholic elected president since John F. Kennedy.
Biden has "given us reason to believe that he will support policies that attack some fundamental values we hold dear as Catholics," Gomez said on Tuesday during a general assembly meeting, according to a copy of his remarks provided to the Free Press by USCCB.
"These policies include the repeal of the Hyde amendment and the preservation of Roe v. Wade. Both of these policies undermine our 'preeminent priority' of the elimination of abortion. These policies also include restoration of the HHS (Health and Human Services) mandate, the passage of the Equality Act, and the unequal treatment of Catholic schools."
Archbishop Gomez praised Biden on some issues, saying the "President-elect has given us reason to believe that his faith commitments will move him to support some good policies. This includes policies in favor of immigration reform, refugees, and the poor; and against racism, the death penalty, and climate change."
But he added that Biden's support for abortion rights may create "confusion" for Catholics.
"These policies pose a serious threat to the common good whenever any politician supports them," Gomez said. "We have long opposed these policies strongly, and we will continue to do so. But when politicians who profess the Catholic faith support them, there are additional problems. Among other things, it creates confusion with the faithful about what the Church actually teaches on these questions."
"This is a difficult and complex situation," Gomez said. "In order to help us navigate it, I have decided to appoint a Working Group, Chaired by Archbishop Vigneron, and consisting of the Chairmen of the Committees responsible for the policy areas at stake, as well as Doctrine and Communications."
He didn't offer additional details, saying he will later provide more information.
Some observers of the Catholic Church expressed concern about the message this group may be sending at a time when Pope Francis has been trying to promote unity.
David Gibson, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, said that "the ad hoc committee sends a bad message and will only undermine efforts to promote Catholic social policies and to cast the Catholic Church as a driver of the common good. Instead, the Catholic leadership will be seen as another polarizing wedge like so many prominent churches."
"I think the creation of this working group on Biden is a muscle memory reflex by the USCCB leadership after so many years of taking a conservative culture war approach to politics," Gibson said.
"Pope Francis has appointed many bishops and cardinals who are more in his own mold of engagement and dialogue — the pope called to congratulate Biden while the American bishops gird for battle with Biden, which is telling."
It's unclear what direction Vigneron will steer the group in.
Since he became head of the Archdiocese 11 years ago, Vigneron has struck a conservative tone at times, warning that people who support same-sex marriage should not receive Communion and the Archdiocese has been cracking down on LGBT Catholic groups. In September, Vigneron drew criticism from liberal Catholics for attending a pro-life fundraiser with former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders where some endorsed Trump.
But while "Vigneron is certainly no liberal ... he is actually closer to the center than to the right wing" among Catholic bishops, Gibson said. "He also doesn’t strike me as someone who tosses verbal bombs the way some of his colleagues do. So Vigneron could actually be a moderating influence for this ad hoc committee."
The Archdiocese of Detroit referred questions about Vigneron's appointment to the USCCB, which sent the Free Press a copy of Gomez' remarks.
"I am dismayed by the USCCB's decision to adopt a contentious posture toward the President-Elect," said Natalia Imperatori-Lee, an associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York. "If the working group turns out to be, as I suspect, another salvo in the culture wars that uses an oversimplified notion of abortion to turn Catholics against one another, then the bishops will continue to lose moral credibility in the eyes of the faithful."
Imperatori-Lee said she is "particularly dismayed, in this statement, by the way Archbishop Gomez uses the notion of 'confusing the faithful'" when he talks about how Biden's views on abortion may confuse Catholics.
"The faithful all know what the church teaches on abortion," she said. "The 'confusion' seems to be about whether the bishops are willing to work toward the common good with someone, anyone, who considers the legality of abortion in this pluralistic country a matter of settled law. Many Catholics, if not most, want to see a decrease in the number of abortions."
Imperatori-Lee said it was "dismaying" for the Catholic bishops to create a group focusing on abortion instead of issues such as immigration, racism and economic struggles of Americans.
"When thousands of Americans are dying in a global pandemic that disproportionately affects people of color, when Central America has been decimated by consecutive hurricanes that are intensifying due to climate change, and when we see images of miles-long lines of people waiting for access to food pantries, I cannot imagine how this working group is the priority for the hierarchy of the US Church," Imperatori-Lee said. "Where is their closeness to Pope Francis's priorities of care for the poor and for the earth? Of global solidarity?"
Speaking Oct. 1 at the annual Al Smith dinner with Catholic leaders, President-elect Joe Biden said: "My Catholic faith has helped me through the darkness" during difficult moments in his life losing loved ones.
It has also shaped his social and political views, Biden said.
“Throughout my life in public service, I’ve been guided by the tenets of Catholic social doctrine," Biden said. "What you do to the least among us, you do to me. We have an obligation to one another. We cannot serve ourselves at the expense of others. We have a responsibility to future generations."
But his abortion rights views disturb conservative Catholics, with some calling upon bishops to refuse him Communion.
It's unclear how much of an effect the group will have on individual bishops.
"Individual bishops will deal with the Biden administration as they wish, and with Biden himself as they see fit," Gibson of Fordham University said. "The question of whether Biden can receive communion, for example is up to his bishop in his home diocese in Delaware. ... I’m sure both Biden and the bishops will try to avoid any confrontations over communion."
Follow Detroit reporter Niraj Warikoo on Twitter: @nwarikoo.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Joe Biden: Catholics torn on President-elect views on abortion