‘Devout’ or ‘extreme’: Media treats Catholicism vastly different depending on politics

Mary Margaret Olohan, DCNF

  • Major media outlets and reporters celebrated President Joe Biden’s Catholicism, highlighting his liberal policies and personal devotion.
  • Democratic politicians and media figures criticized the Catholicism of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett for her adherence to certain Catholic principles.
  • While criticism of Barrett’s Catholicism focuses on her adherence to Catholic teaching, media defenses of Biden’s Catholicism do not account for contradictions between Biden’s policy and Catholic Church teaching.

Major media outlets and reporters celebrated President Joe Biden’s Catholicism though he embraces policies explicitly opposed to Catholic teaching but criticized the Catholicism of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett for her adherence to certain Catholic principles.

Major outlets, reporters, and Democrats previously suggested that Barrett’s Catholicism was linked to extreme and cultish behavior. Yet most media also celebrates Biden’s Catholicism as “devout” without noting the significance of his divergence from Catholic teaching. Others suggest that the Catholic sentiment is changing due to public opinion on these topics — though Catholic teaching has not changed.

‘Devout Catholic’ Joe Biden: The Media’s Darling

When former President Donald Trump said that Biden would “hurt the Bible, hurt God” in August, CNN and news reporters were quick to defend Biden, using the phrases “devout Catholic,” “practicing Catholic,” “lifelong practicing and devout Catholic,” and more.

When Biden became the second Catholic president of the United States, media outlets again used these phrases to describe his devotion to his faith. The New York Times claimed that “President Biden is perhaps the most religiously observant commander in chief in half a century.”

“A different, more liberal Christianity grounds his life and his policies,” the publication tweeted.

The Times story also suggested that Biden’s policies mirrored those of the Holy Father, writing that “Mr. Biden’s policy priorities reflect those of Pope Francis, who has sought to turn the church’s attention from sexual politics to issues like environmental protection, poverty and migration.”

The publication did not mention Catholic teaching on abortion or note that Pope Francis has repeatedly condemnedabortion.

The Associated Press reported on Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez’s Inauguration Day statement criticizing Biden’s abortion stances, but called Biden “a practicing Roman Catholic,” without explicitly noting Catholic teaching on abortion.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki also used the phrase “devout Catholic” in an early January press briefing when she dodged a question Wednesday night on Biden’s abortion policy. The Biden administration announced the following day that it would take steps to begin using taxpayer dollars to fund abortions abroad by reversing the Mexico City Policy.

“I think we’ll have more to say on the Mexico City Policy in the coming days,” Psaki said, “but I will just take the opportunity to remind all of you that he is a devout Catholic and somebody who attends church regularly.”

“He started his day attending church with his family this morning,” Psaki continued. “But I don’t have anything more for you on that.”

Media Treatment Of Catholic Amy Coney Barrett

Barrett, also a Catholic, has been consistently attacked for her faith since her name was first floated as one of President Donald Trump’s potential Supreme Court picks in 2017. Democrats, media outlets and activists fixated on her adherence to Catholic principles and her large family, suggesting that she was “extreme” and unfit to serve on the Supreme Court.

“The conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you,” Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein told Barrett during her 2017 confirmation hearings. “And that’s of concern.”

Democratic Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin also questioned Barrett over an article she co-authored as a law student that included the term “orthodox Catholic,” asking Barrett: “Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?”

“If you’re asking whether I’m a faithful Catholic, I am, although I would stress that my own personal church affiliation or my religious belief would not bear on the discharge of my duties as a judge,” Barrett told him.

Amid reports that Barrett might be Trump’s choice to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, multiple news outlets falsely reported that the Catholic group People of Praise was the inspiration for Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and highlighted Barrett’s reported connections with the group.

These outlets later issued corrections admitting that there was no evidence that People of Praise inspired the book.

The Times originally highlighted Barrett’s ties to the Catholic group People of Praise in 2017. The publication noted that Barrett’s connections to People of Praise did not come up during her 2017 Senate hearings, suggesting that if People of Praise had been brought up, it “might have led to even more intense questioning.”

Criticism of Barrett’s Catholic faith re-emerged as lawmakers argued over who would replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Some media figures even went so far as to suggest that Barrett adopted two of her children for nefarious reasons, and many of Barrett’s critics justified their distrust of her Catholicism by saying that it would impede her ability to serve as a Supreme Court justice.

“If her religion never made it into her court decisions, she can believe what she wants,” disgraced former congresswoman Katie Hill tweeted.“But, yes, personally, I DO object to any religion that still insists women be subservient.”

The Washington Post’s Ron Charles highlighted Barrett’s comment that the ultimate goal in life is to build “the Kingdom of God.”

“Amy Coney Barrett, the judge at the top of Trump’s list to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has said we should always remember that a ‘legal career is but a means to an end … and that end is building the Kingdom of God,’” Charles tweeted. He deleted the tweet after backlash.

Filmmaker Arlen Parsa called Barrett a “Catholic extremist with 7 children” in a since deleted tweet, hitting Barrett for her pro-life views while noting that he will vote for Biden.

“She wants the rest of American women to be stuck with her extreme lifestyle,” he tweeted.

Writer Lauren Hough highlighted media stories linking Barrett to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” calling Barrett a “rabid fucking lunatic.”

“You ever look at someone, say, the probable nominee they’re going to try to shove forward, Amy Cone[sic] Barrett, and you’re like, dude, she looks like she’s in a cult and then lol oh good, she’s literally in a motherfucking cult,” Hough tweeted.

“1-2-3-4-5-6, SIX hardcore Catholics on the court now, she could be 7, but this rabid fucking lunatic makes the other 6 look like Unitarians, throw in an attorney general who refers to the Inquisition as the golden years, and we’re gonna fucking wish we had Sharia law,” Hough added.

Joe Biden And The Catholic Church

While media’s criticism of Barrett focused on her adherence to Catholic teaching, the media defenses of Biden’s Catholicism do not account for contradictions in Biden’s policy and Catholic Church teaching.

The new president’s Catholicism has a long and public history. He has frequently interacted with Pope Francis, was the first Catholic to become vice president, and was reportedly spotted holding rosary beads during the 2011 raid on Osama Bin Laden.

He has also discussed going to mass on Sunday and Catholic Holy Days of Obligation, publicly attended mass on the morning of his inauguration as well as the following Sunday with his family, and invoked the famous Catholic saint and doctor of the church, St. Augustine, in his inaugural address.

Despite Biden’s frequent references to his faith, the former vice president has drawn criticism for supporting and advocating for policies which the Catholic Church explicitly opposes — most notably, abortion.

The Catholic Church teaches that abortion is “a crime against human life,” “constitutes a grave offense” and that a person who obtains an abortion is automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has also warned that Catholics in politics “have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good.”

Earlier in his career, Biden frequently referenced his faith as a reason for his pro-life votes in the Senate. He has since changed his abortion stances and today champions almost unlimited abortion access, prompting a priest to deny Holy Communion to Biden during mass at a Catholic church in South Carolina in October 2019.

“Sadly, this past Sunday, I had to refuse Holy Communion to former Vice President Joe Biden,” Father Robert E. More told the Morning News at the time. “Holy Communion signifies we are one with God, each other and the Church. Our actions should reflect that. Any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching.”

Biden later refused to discuss the incident.

The newly elected president has promised that he will reinstate Obama-era policies requiring the Little Sisters of the Poor to give employees access to birth control — though this violates the Catholic religious beliefs of the sisters, and despite the fact that the Supreme Court ruled July 8 that the Catholic nuns are exempt from Obama’s contraceptive mandate.

During his very first few days in office, Biden promised to revoke the Mexico City Policy, which prevents federal funds from going to abortions abroad, and vowed to make Roe v. Wade the law of the land.

Biden also advocates for same-sex marriage, though the Catholic Church teaches that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

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