Parishioners of St. Andrews Catholic Church in Fort Worth, Texas, know that the Rev. Jim Gigliotti does not water down Catholic teaching for the sake of his flock’s comfort. He doesn’t mince words when explaining it, either.
So it should have surprised exactly no one when he admonished faculty at his parish’s affiliated school for posting messages that extolled the apparent election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on the institution’s Facebook page.
”You are not to celebrate the fact that this pro-abortionist is close to being elected president,” he declared during a weekday mass for faculty and students. “You can do that in your own realm.”
He was specifically condemning reported violations of a diocesan policy against expressions of partisanship — a policy that cuts both ways.
But that context was almost immediately lost when Gigliotti’s comments went viral. Video of him referring to Biden as “not a good Catholic at all” and Harris as “grossly anti-Catholic” drew praise and criticism and even made the local evening news.
Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson acknowledged that the emotional intensity with which Gigliotti spoke may have inadvertently blurred his message, especially when taken out of context, as some critics were quick to do. But the message itself, Olson told me, was correct: Biden would expand abortion access; abortion is barbaric.
These are demonstrable facts. There is nothing controversial about saying so. ”All other rights are based on the preeminent right to life,” Olson said, identifying life issues as the most important of our day.
Gigliotti — a beloved priest with an irrefutable devotion to the most vulnerable members of society — was affirming that, albeit a bit more passionately.
Of course, the church’s strenuous opposition to abortion isn’t new. But when one of its self-described members, who happens to be a prominent political leader, openly rejects the most fundamental of church teachings, things get complicated.
Biden is clearly aware of the influence he can wield over American Catholics. It is no doubt why he quoted so liberally from Pope Francis’ recent exhortation during his campaign and in his victory speech. He recognizes his position affords him the opportunity to push the Catholic Church toward his progressive ideal.
While some lay Catholics have heralded Biden’s election as a win for the church, many religious leaders recognize the perils that his Catholic identity poses to the church in America. The head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last week said that Biden’s position on abortion rights creates a “difficult and complex situation,” leading to “confusion among the faithful about what the Catholic Church actually teaches on these questions.”
Olson noted that Biden has called abortion “a medical necessity.” The president-elect has vowed to take the Little Sisters of the Poor back into court over their refusal to provide abortifacients to employees.
”That is not Catholic,” Olson said, but “Biden makes a point of his Catholicism.” He is clearly “saying this is Catholic and OK.” That has grave implications for the church but also for outsiders who see it as a moral authority.I t imposes a kind of secular relativism. It threatens schism. And as Olson worried, it suggests that Biden is trying to take the role of the bishop in the United States — an authority he does not and should not possess.
Faithful Catholics — those who accept the church’s teachings, however difficult they may be — do not fit neatly into either of the two major political parties. That’s probably a good thing. Olson has himself come under fire from the political right for his criticism of Donald Trump’s immigration policies and practices.
But Trump isn’t Catholic and never pretended to be.
”We will continue to pray for (Biden) and work with him where we can work with him,” Olson said. I doubt the feeling is mutual.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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