Joe Biden Vs. The Catholic Bishops
Superb Ross Douthat column on the dilemma facing US Catholic bishops over the fact that the Catholic American president is fanatically supportive of facilitating the execution of unborn human life (a designation that, even if you don’t believe it, is nonetheless taught as a fact by the Catholic Church to which Joe Biden belongs). Excerpts:
Which points to the second problem — that a direct attempt at a communion ban will inevitably be interpreted as a partisan intervention, at a time when the partisan captivity of conservative Christianity, Protestant and Catholic alike, is a serious problem for the witness of the church.
By this I mean that however reasonable the bishops’ focus on abortion as a pre-eminent issue, in a polarized nation it created a situation where Republicans can seemingly get away with a vast accumulation of un-Catholic acts and policies and simple lies — many of them on display in Donald Trump’s administration, which was amply staffed with Catholics — and be perpetually forgiven because the Democrats support Roe. v. Wade. Which, in turn, makes a pro-life church seem complicit in right-wing evils — from the treatment of child migrants to the pardons for soldiers accused of war crimes to the months of mendacity about the 2020 election — in ways that undermine its credibility with the many Catholics who understandably did not cast a vote for Trump.
This is, I assume, the view of Pope Francis’ circle in Rome, which has been distinctly cool to the American bishops’ potential communion document. It’s a view that assumes that the church’s authority needs to be restored before it can be used, and that what Catholicism needs is a kind of strategic patience, in which — after so many scandals, so much disillusionment — religious faith and pastoral credibility are gradually renewed together.
That’s a reasonable concern. But Douthat is not done:
But the difficulty with that strategy is that there is another set of actors here: the Catholic Democratic politicians themselves, who are not simply holding steady with a kind of moderate pro-choice, “safe, legal and rare” politics, but rather following their party and the wider drift of liberalism in a more radical direction.
Douthat says — correctly, in my view — that Catholic politicians don’t even anguish, as Mario Cuomo once did, over the supposed conflict between their Catholic consciences and what they believe in politically. More:
So to return to my opening question: Is there is any evidence that the Catholic politicians of the left, the next generations of Joe Bidens, will stand firmly against any of these looming, more-than-just-abortion trends? I think the answer is no: There is just too little daylight now between secular utilitarianism and liberal Catholicism in its political and partisan form. Left-leaning Catholic intellectuals may write regretfully or critically about the commodification of human life or the spread of suicide, but on the evidence of the past few decades, Catholic Democratic politicians are likely to go along with whatever secular progress or individualism is supposed to require.
Thus the dilemma for the American Catholic bishops in the year 2021. There are many good reasons to avoid a political confrontation over communion and abortion right now, many reasons to expect that any effort will backfire or just fail.
But if, over the next few generations, we move into a world where the liberalism of Catholic politicians requires them to support not just abortion rights but a brave new world of human life manufactured, commodified, vivisected and casually snuffed out — well, then the bishops of tomorrow may look back on today and wish they’d found a way to say “enough.”
It’s not my church, but I believe the Catholic bishops should deny communion to Joe Biden. The slippery slope Douthat identifies is real. The difference between an ordinary Catholic supporting abortion, and a powerful politician doing it, is meaningful. In the 1950s, when Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans excommunicated Louisiana politicians trying to prevent Catholic schools from desegregating, he did not punish all Louisiana Catholics who supported segregation. He punished lawmakers who were deliberately trying to limit the liberty of their own church. And he was right to do so. He did not have the power to stop them from doing what they wanted to do, but he did have the power to withhold the Eucharist from them, and to excommunicate them from the Church. Segregation is a serious moral matter, but not nearly as morally serious as protecting the unborn (which is literally a matter of life and death).
I don’t know how Orthodox bishops have reacted in similar situations. I do know this: that in the Orthodox Church, when I’ve been traveling, I have been refused communion by priests who did not know me when I presented myself for communion. This is how I learned not to do so unless I have been able to speak to the priest before services to let them know that I am an Orthodox Christian who has had a recent confession. Generally speaking, Orthodox priests are zealous about what they call “guarding the chalice”. They do this because of their high view of what Holy Communion is — a view shared by Catholic teaching. They do this in part to protect the laity from receiving communion unworthily. You might not get this, but if you believe what Orthodoxy and Catholicism says about the Eucharist is true, then it should make logical sense to you.
Even slavery is not as serious a moral issue as abortion. If Joe Biden supported slavery as he supports abortion, the Catholic Church would not simply withhold the Eucharist from him, but also excommunicate him without a second thought.
The dilemma the Catholic bishops face comes down to this: is the Catholic Church meant to be a part of society, marching along with it, or is it meant to stand in the middle of the road, telling society to STOP? I think this question is at the heart of the division I observed among French Catholics when it came to my book The Benedict Option. Older Catholics there — Catholics my age (54) and older — tended to think the book was too radical. Younger Catholics, by contrast, understood it and accepted it. (This wasn’t universally true; I’m generalizing.) The difference, I think, has to do with how they see the Church’s relationship to the modern world. The older Catholics had not accepted that if the Catholic Church is true to itself, it will be hated by the modern world. The younger ones had, and had cast their lot with Catholicism, contra mundum.
It comes down to this: in this moment, is the Church (not just the Catholic Church) called to be prophetic, or therapeutic? I think that only by being prophetic — calling the world out — can it be therapeutic, and heal the world of its brokenness.
I’ve been in Slovakia this week, and that means I’m thinking a lot about Father Tomislav Kolakovic, the prophetic Croatian priest who escaped Nazi agents in Zagreb and hid in a teaching position at the Catholic university here in Bratislava. He told his students that the Germans were going to lose the war, thank God, but that the Communists were going to be ruling their country when it was over — and that they had better prepare for persecution. The Slovak bishops chastised the priest for being too alarmist — but he was right. Those who listened to him laid the groundwork for the underground church, which became necessary in 1948, when the Communists took over. I dedicated Live Not By Lies to the memory of Father Kolakovic, because we are living in another Kolakovic Moment.
The world is on fire. We don’t have need of religious leaders trying to pretend like nothing is happening. Douthat is right: if the Catholic bishops won’t draw the line with Catholic politicians on the sanctity of human life here, where and when will they?