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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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.