The Magazine

More Catholic Than the Pope

Joe Biden's and Nancy Pelosi's ill-fated ventures into theological disputation.

Sep 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 03 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Do they think this is a debate they're actually going to win? Do they imagine the Catholic theologians of America--from Avery Cardinal Dulles all the way to Sister Sara Butler--are suddenly going to whack their heads and say, "My God, we never thought of that"? What impulse makes Catholic politicians try to argue theology with their own church?

There it was, at the end of August, when Nancy Pelosi, the Catholic speaker of the House, went on Meet the Press to explain that abortion is not theologically wrong: "What I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the Church have not been able to make that definition. And St. Augustine said at three months. .  .  . I don't think anybody can tell you when life begins, human life begins. As I say, the Catholic Church for centuries has been discussing this."

And then, two weeks later, Joe Biden, the Catholic vice-presidential candidate, went back on Meet the Press to add: "There is a debate in our church. .  .  . Back in Summa Theologia, when Thomas Aquinas wrote Summa Theologia, he said there was no--it didn't occur until quickening, 40 days after conception. How am I going out and tell you, if you or anyone else that you must insist upon my view that is based on a matter of faith?"

With their typical patience, the theologians replied that theology has always taken its facts from the biological sciences when talking about biological issues--and science these days makes clearer how gestation works than it did in the fourth century. For that matter, Augustine explicitly condemned abortion at any stage, as did Thomas Aquinas, and besides, quickening (the fetal motion that usually occurs between 90 and 120 days in a pregnancy) is completely different from the Thomistic account of the development of the intellective soul around the 40th day, and Speaker Pelosi seems to have confused .  .  . while Senator Biden may not have fully grasped .  .  .

On and on it went, as stylized as a Kabuki performance--until, with his typical impatience, Denver's archbishop, Charles Chaput, summed up: "Meet the Press has become a national window on the flawed moral reasoning of some Catholic public servants." Fourteen bishops have now issued public statements on the Pelosi and Biden gaffes.

In part, what these politicians are doing is dredging up the half-remembered talking points of elections past--the sort of block of eroded verbiage that the Catholic John Kerry sometimes used during the 2004 presidential campaign, as when, for example, he said his position on abortion was in line with the liberalism of the (non-existent) Pope Pius XXIII and the changes wrought by "the Vatican II."

Along the way, however, Kerry established what seems to have become a new default position for Democratic Catholics--one of those spots to which the minds of politicians, like overstretched rubber-bands, always snap back. The default position used to be the one established by Mario Cuomo, in a famous talk he gave at Notre Dame in 1984, which claimed that Catholic officials may resist Church teaching by being personally opposed to abortion even though they publicly support it.

Now, however, the position seems to have become the notion that Catholic officials must resist Catholic teaching, since opposition to abortion is inherently religious--a matter solely of narrow sectarian definition, like not eating meat on Fridays. The fact that the Catholic Church holds a view has become the reason that Catholic politicians are required to oppose it. As Biden told Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press, "I voted against telling everyone else in the country that they have to accept my religiously based view."
Perhaps one shouldn't read too much into those particular comments, for the babbling brook that is Joe Biden often overflows its banks. Campaigning in Missouri, for example, he noted the praise that has come to Sarah Palin for her care for her Down syndrome baby, and he demanded that Republicans be asked, "If you care about it, why don't you support stem cell research?"

Leave aside the fact that, even back in the 2004 glory days of overinflated claims for stem cells, no one seriously claimed they would soon cure Down syndrome. Leave aside, as well, the fact that the use of embryonic stem cells is what the pro-life community rejects. Leave aside, for that matter, the fact that the recent scientific breakthroughs with reprogrammed cells taken from adults have pushed much of the issue off the political table. Consider just the fact that Biden was declaring his own Catholic position on embryonic stem cells to be uncaring. As the philosopher Francis Beckwith observed of the incident, this is a man who won't even force his beliefs on himself.