Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Joe Biden, Catholic candidate or non-Catholic minister?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 26, 2019

For several decades now, pro-life Catholics in the US have been asking why our bishops don’t impose canonical penalties on politicians who support abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and other policies that clearly violate the Church’s teachings. The standard dodge employed by those politicians is that they don’t personally support the immoral actions, but they cannot impose their beliefs on others.

But what if the politician goes a step further, and becomes personally involved in the action that the Church condemns? What if, say, a politician who identifies himself as a Catholic not only supports legal recognition of same-sex marriage, but volunteers to officiate at a homosexual union?

Former Vice President Joe Biden did just that in August 2016, obtaining authority from the District of Columbia to act as a minister and performing the ceremony for two White House aides. This action drew a mild rebuke from the leaders of the US bishops’ conference, who said that “confusion arises” from such flagrant disregard for Church teaching.

Yes, “confusion arises”—in part because the bishops did not rebuke Biden by name, nor impose any sanctions for an action that they rightly described as a “counter-witness.” As a matter of fact, the bishops didn’t even refer specifically to the White House ceremony, even though anyone who read their statement knew what they had in mind. They re-stated Church teaching (which was already well known) but took no step to discipline the man who flouted that teaching.

Now this same Joe Biden is a candidate for the presidency. He will doubtless emphasize his Catholic upbringing. Will any leading Church official raise a question about Biden’s standing as a Catholic? Will any major-media ask how someone who acted as a minister, in a religious ceremony that the Catholic Church would never recognize, could still claim to be a Catholic?

Last year Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Tucson suggested the imposition of “canonical penalties” on federal agents who enforce the President Trump’s immigration policies. Some Catholic moralists argue that those policies violate the principles of Catholic teaching. Others disagree. It is a disputed point, whereas the Catholic position on same-sex marriage is clear and uncontested. Moreover immigration policies are a political issue, over which bishops have no direct authority, whereas the administration of the sacraments, including matrimony, is clearly within the bishops’ jurisdiction.

What would happen, do you suppose, if a prominent Republican politician—say, Sam Brownback, the former senator and current roving ambassador for religious freedom—summoned news crews to his office and performed a Baptism, himself pouring the water and pronouncing the words. Do you doubt that he would earn a stiff rebuke from bishops, who would remind us all that Baptism should ordinarily be performed in a church, by an ordained minister? Yet that Baptism, while perhaps improper, would be entirely valid; it would not be a mockery of the sacrament.

So here we go again: another presidential election cycle, another question about a Catholic candidate who blatantly rejects Catholic moral teaching. Another massive silence from the hierarchy. Confusion arises, again.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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