Joe Biden and the search for “Catholic politicians”
Is Joe Biden Catholic? At the Republican National Convention last Wednesday, Sr. Deirdre Byrne of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, called the former Vice President’s ticket “the most anti-life…ever.” At the same event former Fighting Irish Football Coach Lou Holtz accused Biden was “Catholic in name only.”
Many came to Biden’s defense: one twitter user, @go_oat, facetiously claimed that Biden was an ideal candidate for Catholic Integralists (a movement investigated by the Rover here), and named himself leader of the organization “Integralists for Joseph Biden.”
Biden himself responded to criticisms by calling faith the “bedrock foundation of [his] life.” Fr. James Martin, SJ, editor at large of America Magazine, opined that “[Lou Holtz] has no clue of what is going on inside of Joe Biden’s heart,” and “Mr. Biden is a baptized Catholic. Thus, he is a Catholic.”
These defenses of Biden are well-founded. The Council of Trent declared anyone who denies that Baptism imprints an “indelible Sign” on the soul to be “anathema.” Biden has written that “faith is what has gotten me through…difficult times,” calling to mind the death of his first wife and two children. To question this would be insulting and uncharitable.
Nor do I intend to litigate on the eternal ecclesial football: denying communion to abortionist politicians under Canon 915, which states that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” The position of the USCCB is that “such decisions rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles,” and I am not a canon lawyer or a pastor.
It is best to reframe the question as “Is Biden a Catholic politician?” That is: are his political principles and activities in accordance with the teaching of the Church?
It is not enough to praise the salutary role of faith in one’s life. Pope Pius XII in Mystici corporis Christi reminds us that “As [the Church’s] children, it is our duty…to respect the authority which she has received from Christ.” This principle is not peculiar to Catholicism. John Calvin writes in his Institutes that “there is no other means of entering into life unless… [the Church] nourish us at her breasts, and…keep us under her charge and government.”
Biden has said that he is “prepared to accept… [the] doctrine of [his] church about when life begins,” but will not “impose that on every other person.” This statement demonstrates confusion on what the Church teaches: Pope John Paul II writes in Evangelium Vitae that responsibility for the “unspeakable crime” of abortion “falls on the legislators who have promoted and approved abortion laws,” and thus Biden cannot be considered a Catholic politician.
Biden also errs on the relationship between faith and politics, and here it is necessary to move towards defining what a Catholic politician is, contra Biden.
One might sidestep faith by claiming that science and secular philosophy proves that life begins at conception, e.g. the organization Pro-Life Humanists. But this does not matter to religion qua politics.
Immediately relevant here is Dignitatis humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s authoritative declaration on religious liberty and the Church’s relation to states in the modern world. It declares that “the human person has a right to religious freedom,” meaning, “no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs,…nor…is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience.”
This might seem to abrogate the place of religion in political life, but the same document states that “government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor” and that religions have a right to demonstrate the “special value of their doctrine in what concerns the organization of society and the inspiration of the whole of human activity.” Politics is a human activity like any other. It would be incoherent for the Church to reject a place for faith in politics and then affirm, by virtue of its religious authority, that abortion is “absolutely excluded as lawful.”
Moreover, the contention that that religious belief is unsuited to political discourse because it does not have a “scientific” or factual basis is poorly founded. Non-religious beliefs and systems are grounded in philosophical systems and assumptions that cannot be rooted in an appeal to science, such as the redefinition of life by supporters of abortion.
True religion is a superior foundation to secular philosophy in political life. St. Thomas Aquinas points out in the Summa contra Gentiles that, because “the investigation of the human reason…has falsity present within it…due…to the weakness of our intellect…it was necessary that,” even in regards to things apparent from nature, “unshakeable certitude and pure truth…should be presented to men by way of faith.” Therefore true religion preserves us from catastrophic error in political thought.
An item of particular importance to Christian politics is the Kingship of Christ, a doctrine celebrated with the Feast of Christ the King, established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quas primas. The Pope states that “it would be a grave error…to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his (sic) power,” and in Him, “all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Ought we then embrace “Integralism” and submit to a Catholic Monarch? Again, Dignitatis humanae states that government “would clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious.” Rather, government should “create conditions favorable to…religious life,…that the people may be truly enabled to exercise their religious rights and to fulfill their religious duties.” A Catholic politician does not demand a return to “throne and altar” politics, but, attentive to the teachings of the Church, approaches politics with faith and the Kingship of Christ first.
Joe Biden is not this politician. But who is? For now, he or she remains more an ideal than a reality. Thus Biden failing to be a truly Catholic politician should not be seen as a statement of who Catholics must or must not vote for, but an assessment of reality that can be useful in this election cycle and those to come.
Bob Siegfried is a sophomore from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He enjoys naps, reading, and watching movies. He quite enjoys Cherry Coke. Reach him at email@example.com