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.

But Joe Biden--like Nancy Pelosi and other Catholic supporters of the Obama campaign--are caught in a bind that is, in many ways, even tighter this year than the one that squeezed John Kerry and his Catholic followers four years ago. Back in 2002, the Vatican office headed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger issued a note about the participation of Catholics in political life. Declaring that politicians have "a duty to be morally coherent"--an explicit rejection of the Cuomoesque attempt to distinguish private from public positions--the note insisted that "a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals."

Some American bishops took this to mean that Catholic officials who support the legality of abortion should not present themselves for communion or identify themselves as Catholics. Most of the nation's bishops, however, followed the lead of Washington's cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, who put together what was widely reported as a compromise in the summer of 2004. McCarrick's task force rejected "the denial of communion from Catholic politicians or Catholic voters," while recommending that bishops give private instruction on the life issues to the politicians in their dioceses. This is the model apparently followed by Biden's bishop at the time, Michael Saltarelli, and still followed by San Francisco's archbishop, George Niederauer, who has asked Pelosi to meet with him to discuss her comments on Meet the Press.

But things in Catholic circles have changed since 2004. To begin with, Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, which makes his instructions a little harder to ignore. Then, in 2005, McCarrick turned 75, the age at which bishops are required to offer their resignations--an offer the Vatican promptly accepted. All along the line, the identification of Catholicism with the rejection of abortion has hardened into something that Catholic church-goers and the general American public all recognize.

American politics, too, has undergone a change over the past four years. Here's a curious fact: Not once was the word abortion mentioned from the dais of the Democratic convention in 2004. That convention seemed, at times, about nothing except embryonic stem cell research, as speaker after speaker denounced the Luddite Republican opposition to all things scientific. But the Democrats at the time clearly did not see the defense of Roe v. Wade as a winning issue.

Then came the Democratic victories in the 2006 midterm elections and the collapse of public approval ratings for President Bush--followed by polls early in 2008 that suggested anyone from a blind monkey to Che Guevara, if he ran as a Democrat, would win the 2008 presidential election. Conservative positions were so unpopular, the left decided, that concessions (like the one that forced them to support the self-declared pro-life Democrat Bob Casey Jr. in the 2008 Pennsylvania Senate race) no longer needed to be made.

And so the platform adopted at their convention in Denver this year begins its mention of abortion with the flat sentence: "The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right." For that matter, Senator Barack Obama proclaimed his party's support for legalized abortion in the extravaganza of his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention--even though he had been widely mocked for appearing astonishingly unreflective about the issue, declaring at the Saddleback Church interviews in August that the question of when life begins is "above my pay grade."

Not helping him at all was South Carolina's Democratic chairwoman, Carol Fowler, who swiped at Sarah Palin by saying the Republicans had nominated a vice-presidential candidate "whose primary qualification seems to be that she hasn't had an abortion." Nonetheless, early this month, the Obama campaign began running radio ads about the evil that would follow if the Republicans are elected and "Roe v. Wade is overturned." All along the line, liberal columnists and party activists have been far more vocal about abortion than they were in 2004.

So what's Joe Biden to do? What, for that matter, is any Catholic supporter of Obama to do? The ledge on which they are trying to stand is crumbling beneath their feet. Douglas Kmiec, a former legal counsel in the Reagan administration, has gotten the most publicity for his Catholic praise of the Democratic ticket. Indeed, he's made a new career for himself out of being a Catholic Republican who supports Obama: pouring out op-eds, delivering speeches, and penning a just-released book, Can a Catholic Support Him?--Asking the Big Question About Barack Obama.

The title is a tease, as you might expect. "What's wrong," he writes, "is for Republican partisans to claim" that support for abortion is Obama's position. "It's not. Rather, Obama believes there are alternative ways to promote the 'culture of life,' even given the law's sanction of abortion." The trouble, of course, is that Obama has given little indication he believes anything of the sort, and, in the months Kmiec spent writing the book, the Democrats have systematically undermined its premise by explicitly endorsing Roe v. Wade and refusing any concessions that abortion might be even a necessary evil.

In response to it all, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden were reduced to the idiocy of trying to argue theology on the Sunday morning shows, and Kmiec's claims have dwindled down to a kind of old-fashioned double-effect argument: The Republicans are so wrong about other issues, especially the Iraq war and the economy, that Catholics should vote for the Democratic party and accept the Democrats' support for legalized abortion as an unintended consequence.

Who's likely to be convinced by such a position? Republicans have occasionally tacked away from pro-life voters. There's a solid argument to be made that the fact of Sarah Palin's nomination, together with the visual presentation of her family at the Republican convention, made as strong a pro-life argument as it's possible to make. Still, in the convention's acceptance speeches--an hour and a half of speechmaking from McCain and Palin--the issue was explicitly mentioned only once, with the brief phrase "a culture of life" coming in a laundry list late in McCain's speech. And pro--lifers have been made nervous by McCain's recent answer to a science group's questionnaire, in which he affirmed his support for "federal funding for embryonic stem cell research," though he insists on unspecified limits. His campaign has announced that it is airing radio ads about stem cells. Embryonic? Adult? Reprogrammed pluripotent cells? The ad doesn't say, but the fact of the ad is not reassuring.

Still, here is where the doctrine of double effect might actually have some purchase. Abortion is so grave an evil that some errors from McCain might be acceptable. Polls over the last few elections consistently show much weaker Catholic opposition to embryonic stem cell research than to abortion.

As it happens, those same polls consistently show little that can be identified as a uniquely Catholic vote, once the presidential election has narrowed down the choice to the two parties' candidates. The Democratic primaries did seem to reveal a Catholic identity among some voters: Hillary Clinton won 70 percent of Catholics in Pennsylvania, and she beat Obama by 10 percentage points or more among Catholics in two-thirds of the states where exit polls asked for religious identification. But those numbers precisely matched her victories among white voters with lower-middle-class incomes and blue-collar jobs in the old Rust Belt. For that matter, they mostly came at the end of the primary cycle, when a backlash against Obama was setting in. Once Catholic Republicans are added, in the broader setting of a national campaign, the likelihood is that Catholics will vote much the way the rest of the nation votes.

And yet, there remains that question of abortion. Things have tightened over the last few years, the Catholic position is firmer in the public's mind--firmer in the Catholic mind, for that matter. McCain was a long way from the pro-lifers' first choice for a Republican nominee, but the Democrats this election cycle are determined to force the issue. They've pushed, and they've pushed, and they've pushed, until Catholics are falling off the cliff. Poor Doug Kmiec and his sad question, "Can a Catholic Support Him?" As a matter of good conscience, the answer looks increasingly like no, a Catholic can't support Obama. And as a matter of political fact--well, that's starting to look like no, as well, isn't it?

Joseph Bottum, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is editor of First Things.