Abortion question may be troublesome for Democrat candidate

A practicing Catholic, Biden hopes to peel believers away from Trump

Former VP determined not to cede religious voters to Republicans; 6 in 10 white Catholics backed Trump in 2016, while nearly 7 in 10 Hispanic Catholics voted for Clinton

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden waves to media as he leaves St. Joseph On the Brandywine Catholic Church after attending Mass in Wilmington, Delaware, Sept. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden waves to media as he leaves St. Joseph On the Brandywine Catholic Church after attending Mass in Wilmington, Delaware, Sept. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WILMINGTON, Delaware (AFP) — A rosary around his wrist, Joe Biden often speaks of the great comfort his Catholic faith has brought him in overcoming the tragedies that have deeply marked his life.

When Americans vote on November 3, the Democratic presidential candidate hopes he will have persuaded enough of his fellow Catholics to back him; a majority of them supported Donald Trump in 2016.

Every Sunday, or nearly so, the former vice president attends Mass at St. Joseph on the Brandywine, a small, quaint church in an affluent suburb of Wilmington, Delaware.

It is there, in the church’s vast and verdant cemetery, that lie the graves of his parents; his son Beau, who died of cancer in 2015; and of his first wife Neilia and their daughter Naomi, who were killed in a 1972 traffic accident as Neilia drove her three children to buy a Christmas tree. Beau and his brother Hunter survived the crash.

On Sunday morning, under the bright red fall foliage of a few scattered trees, Biden and wife Jill again visited the grave — decorated with small American flags — of Beau, a former Delaware attorney general.

Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden arrive at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church for Sunday mass on October 18, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

Barack Obama’s vice president carried around his wrist the rosary that his son was wearing the day he died; Biden said in 2017 that he had not removed it since Beau passed.

The product of Catholic schools, Biden lives his religion openly, on a daily basis, and always has.

US President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy leave the Middleburg Community Center after attending Roman Catholic Church services, April 1, 1962 (AP Photo/Bob Schutz)

If he defeats Donald Trump in the November 3 election, he will become only America’s second Catholic president, after John F. Kennedy.

From quoting Pope John Paul II on the campaign trail to frequently invoking his Irish Catholic roots, the 77-year-old Biden is determined not to cede the terrain of religion to Republicans.

Abortion rights

The stakes are high: Trump carried the 2016 election over Hillary Clinton thanks to razor-thin victories in several key battleground states.

Every vote will count on Election Day. And Catholic voters offer Biden a rare opportunity to appeal to the “swing voters” who often switch parties from one election to the next.

In 2016, 52 percent of Catholics supported Trump, to 45 percent for Clinton, according to the Pew Research Center.

With Catholics representing some one-fifth of the American populace, that gap is not insignificant.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, middle, is gifted a Rosary by Minerva Munguia-Sanchez, a principal at St. Alphonsus School before he sits to eat with Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, left, during a visit to Tamales Liliana’s in East Los Angeles, July 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Yet American Catholics are far from a homogenous group: six in 10 white Catholics backed Trump in 2016, while nearly seven in 10 Hispanic Catholics voted for Clinton. And many key members of the Trump administration are Catholic.

“We see the Catholic vote across the board to be a critical constituency to this campaign,” Josh Dickson, the faith engagement director for the Biden campaign, told AFP.

But the question of abortion could be troublesome for Biden, even in his own strongly Democratic state of Delaware.

Biden supports the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 decision in the case of Roe v. Wade that ensured women’s right to abortion. If elected, he has promised to safeguard that ruling through congressional action if necessary.

Pat Thompson displayed a sign supporting Roe v. Wade at a rally, held by Planned Parenthood, commemorating the 45th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision at the Capitol January 22, 2018, in Sacramento, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

John Dolan, an engineer in his 50s who also attends Mass at St. Joseph on the Brandywine, told AFP he didn’t care whether Biden was “Jewish, Roman Catholic, Lutheran or atheist.”

He said he had not yet decided how to vote. “But you know, as a Roman Catholic, it’s hard for me to support someone who basically is” pro-choice. “They should be pro-life.”

Basking in the autumn sun on the bank of the Christina River in Wilmington, Rudy Antonini Jr., a 71-year-old retired attorney, said he will be voting for Trump.

“I got nothing against Joe Biden personally. I think he’s a nice guy,” he told AFP. But “he’s not pro-life, he’s pro-choice. So that’s a violation of the Catholic principles.”

Last year, a Catholic priest refused to give Biden communion because of the Democrat’s pro-choice stance — prompting Biden to point out that he had even received communion from the pope.

‘Clear moral choice’

Asked how damaging the issue could be for Biden, Dickson stressed that “Catholics in the United States are very diverse in terms of their viewpoints, in terms of their backgrounds” and are “multi-issue voters” — often looking beyond the single issue of abortion.

Dickson said Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris are “the clear moral choice in this election.”

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden leaves St. Joseph Catholic Church, Oct. 3, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Capri Cafaro, a former Ohio officeholder now at American University, agrees that many Catholics will look beyond Biden’s position on abortion.

They “can identify with how he tries, the genuine struggle that he has, trying to rectify his own personal faith beliefs with policy decisions,” she said.

Outside an ice cream shop in Wilmington’s Little Italy neighborhood, 41-year-old property manager Alexandra Johnson has made her choice: “Definitely I’m voting for Biden.”

“I don’t look at if it’s Democrat or Republican,” said Johnson, a mother of four who is Catholic. “I look at what’s going to better help in the future.”

“I think he has a better future for my children in general — so that’s where I’m at.”

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