WASHINGTON — Joe Biden became a senator in 1973, just 17 days before the Supreme Court decided the landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade. The young senator, a practicing Catholic, later told an interviewer he disagreed with the decision and he had views on such matters that made him ‘’about as liberal as your grandmother.’’
‘’I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion. I think it went too far,’’ he concluded in 1974. ‘’I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.’’
Nearly a half-century later, with Biden evolving along with his party on the issue of abortion rights, he again declared the court was moving too far — this time, he argued, in the opposite direction.
‘’The idea that we’re going to make a judgment that is going to say that no one can make the judgment to choose to abort a child, based on a decision by the Supreme Court, I think, goes way overboard,’’ Biden said on Tuesday in reaction to a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion proposing to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Throughout his career, Biden’s views on abortion — at least as a political matter — have steadily shifted in a way that has in recent years placed him in line with his party but at uncomfortable odds with his church. And now that he has become the second Catholic president in US history, he suddenly finds himself the country’s highest-ranking champion of abortion rights as it faces its greatest challenge since Roe.
‘’It concerns me a great deal that we’re going to, after 50 years, decide a woman does not have a right to choose,’’ Biden told reporters as he boarded Air Force One on Tuesday.
Abortion has long been a vexing issue for some Catholic Democrats, and Biden has been openly conflicted over it. While as president he has been an ally of abortion rights groups, he has also almost never used the word ‘’abortion,’’ as though he finds it uncomfortable — or politically risky — to do so.
But as a clear supporter of abortion rights, he has been at odds with a group of American bishops, with some refusing to offer him Communion and others saying the president — who attends Mass almost every weekend — has no right to call himself a serious Catholic.
‘’For Joe Biden, his gap from the institutional leadership of the church in this country and also in the Vatican is widening,’’ said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University theology professor and author of ‘’Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States.’’ ‘’Because politically, he has to defend Roe v. Wade, to legislate on it probably. That will expose him to even more accusations that he’s a heretic, he’s not a Catholic, and that all Catholics who voted for him are heretics.’’
The only other Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, confronted more open prejudice for his faith and famously gave a speech to Protestant ministers two months before the election to clear the air.
‘’I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote,’’ Kennedy declared.
But Kennedy was elected more than a decade before Roe v. Wade, so he did not confront the conflict over abortion as Biden does.
‘’He is a Catholic president who has no real majority in Congress, but even less in his church,’’ Faggioli said of Biden. ‘’This is a problem that Kennedy did not have.’’
And while Biden has received support from the Vatican, with Pope Francis welcoming him and protecting him from the sometimes-vocal criticism of his American coreligionists, that relationship could now grow more complex. Biden, as the nation’s most prominent Catholic, could shift from defending an existing law — one that has been accepted precedent for nearly a half-century— to actively pressing for new legislation to codify abortion rights in law.
It could also mark a new role for Biden himself. In five decades of public life, he has sometimes signaled unease with going against church teachings, but now he has a political imperative to do just that, and in a high-profile way.
‘’He is the most prominent Catholic political spokesman right now, and this is a uniquely important period for him to have a strong voice on the issue,’’ said Mark Rozell, who co-edited the book ‘’Catholics and US Politics After the 2016 Elections.’’
Biden’s complex feelings on abortion — an apparent discomfort, combined with a sense that the procedure should not be banned — mirror those of many Americans, however. Because of that, Rozell suggested Biden’s message could resonate if he handles the issue forthrightly.
‘’If he can speak forcefully and effectively on this issue, representing the angst that not only Democrats but swing voters feel, that could be transformative in this election cycle,’’ said Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. ‘’It is a compelling moment for the president.’’