Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Catholic World News News Feature

Biden joins Pelosi in challenge to Church teaching on abortion September 08, 2008

Taking his cue from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joseph Biden has told a nationwide television audience that although he believes human life begins at conception, he will not impose that "personal and private" belief on others by voting to protect unborn children.

In a Sunday-morning appearance on Meet the Press, Biden told NBC interviewer Tom Brokaw that he accepts the Church's teaching that life begins at conception. But he argued that the Catholic teaching cannot be applied to non-Catholic citizens.

Senator Biden's inaccurate rendition of Church teaching on abortion could be challenged today in a very public setting. On Monday, September 8, Bishop W. Francis Malooly will be installed as the new head of the Wilmington, Delaware diocese in which the Democratic lawmaker lives. Biden is expected to attended the installation Mass this afternoon. Thus the new bishop may be challenged immediately to decide whether a Catholic politician who flagrantly violates Church teaching on the sanctity of life will be allowed to receive Communion.

During his Meet the Press interview with Biden, Brokaw reminded the senator that a few weeks earlier he had questioned Nancy Pelosi about Catholic teaching on abortion. When the host asked him to respond to the same question, Biden produced an answer remarkably similar to the one that Pelosi had offered.

"I'd say: 'Look I know when it begins for me,'" Biden replied. "For me, as a Roman Catholic, I'm prepared to accept the teachings of my Church. But let me tell you. There are an awful lot of people of great confessional faiths-- Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others-- who have a different view."

The vice-presidential candidate continued:

I'm prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception. But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society.

Like Pelosi, Biden claimed that the Catholic Church has wrestled with the question of when human life begins. Citing St. Thomas Aquinas (whereas Pelosi had referred to St. Augustine), he pointed out that a Doctor of the Church believed that human life begins with quickening, when the baby first stirs in the womb.

But St. Thomas Aquinas, like St. Augustine, was wrong about the biological facts-- facts which modern science has confirmed beyond dispute. Human life is present from the moment of conception. This is not a matter of faith, nor a question of Church teaching. It is a biological fact.

In his response to Tom Brokaw, Biden claimed that he was "prepared to accept the teachings of my Church." But the Church does not issue teachings on scientific questions. Where the Church does claim authority-- on the moral duties of believers-- Biden is not prepared to follow that guidance.

Again and again in the past 20 years, the Church has taught that Catholic lawmakers have a solemn obligation to uphold the dignity of human life, and that to fail in that obligation is gravely sinful. That is a matter of Catholic teaching, and if he is prepared to accept the guidance of the Church, Biden must shoulder his political obligation.

If he truly believes that an unborn child is a human person-- whether he reaches that conclusion foolishly, believing it to be an article of faith, or logically, realizing that it is an established biological reality-- Senator Biden has a moral obligation to protect that young life. This obligation is not a matter of confessional loyalty, but a duty under the natural law. Until late in the 20th century, the vast majority of American lawmakers recognized that duty, and laws against abortion were passed in all 50 states, invariably by legislatures in which Catholics were a minority.

Senator Biden says that the unborn child is a human life, and yet he refuses to protect that life, because some Americans do not recognize the humanity of the unborn. The senator's logic suggests that laws can be based upon entirely subjective criteria, so that human life can be protected only if everyone agrees that it is human life-- regardless of demonstrable facts. The same sort of subjective approach prompted Chief Justice Roger Taney (a practicing Catholic) to observe that since some Americans regarded their African slaves as less than human, those slaves had "no rights which white men are bound to accept."

When Nancy Pelosi appeared on Meet the Press two weeks earlier, her comments on abortion provoked a chorus of rebukes from the American hierarchy. The fact that Biden pressed ahead with the same arguments, ignoring the bishops' protests, shows that the battle is now fully joined.

In Madison, Wisconsin, Bishop Robert Morlino reacted angrily to Biden's televised comments, and tossed aside his prepared Sunday homily to focus on the question, realizing that this has become a topic on which Church leaders must speak forcefully. Bishop Morlino told his Sunday congregation:

Senator Biden does not understand the difference between articles of faith and natural law. Any human being-- regardless of his faith, his religious practice, or having no faith-- any human being can reason to the fact that human life, from conception until natural death, is sacred. Biology-- not faith, not philosophy, not any kind of theology; biology-- tells us-- science-- that at the moment of conception there exists a unique individual of the human species.

Bishop Morlino went on to say that while Senator Biden and Speaker Pelosi claim to be honoring the principle that religion and politics are separate realms, the politicians themselves are violating that principle by presuming to speak about Church teachings-- and stating those teachings inaccurately-- before a nationwide television audience. "They're stepping on the Pope's turf and mine," the bishop said, "and they're violating the separation of Church and state, confusing God's good people."

God's good people will remain confused as long as prominent Catholics continue to ignore fundamental moral principles, and offer distorted presentations of Church teachings to justify their treason. The only effective antidote-- the only way to eliminate the confusion-- is for the bishops to present authentic Catholic teaching forcefully, and to let the world know that prominent Catholics cannot flout Church authority with impunity.

At his installation Mass today, Bishop Malooly will face a challenge. If Senator Biden attends the ceremony-- and especially if he receives Holy Communion-- his presence will be taken by millions of Americans as evidence that his public stand is within the boundaries of acceptable behavior for Catholic politicians. In his very first hours on the job, the new bishop must decide whether he can allow that impression to stand.