Joe Biden’s voting record on abortion in the United States Senate is likely to cause heartburn for two groups of people: ardent pro-choicers and Catholic bishops. Biden is a Catholic; and yet for the last ten years, according to the National Right to Life Committee, he has voted the “wrong” way 88.5 percent of the time and the “right” way only 11.5 percent of the time. No wonder the bishops will be unhappy.
Hardcore pro-abortion types will be unhappy too; for not only has Biden fallen short of a 100 percent pro-choice voting record but, worse still, his few defections have had to do with partial-birth abortion. He voted in favor of the PBA ban that is now the law of the land. For those who believe that the right to abortion is a fundamental human right, voting for a PBA ban is a tremendous shortcoming — for if a right is “fundamental,” how can it be curtailed in any circumstances whatever? Biden may be a friend of the pro-choice movement, but he’s not a rock-solid friend. What, pro-choicers will ask, could Obama (who really is rock-solid) have been thinking of when he put such a dubious character on his ticket?
That Obama and Biden differ on PBA could lead to an embarrassing situation if a clever and relentless reporter — somebody like the late Tim Russert — presses Biden on his reasons for voting in favor of the PBA ban. If Biden should say, as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once did, that PBA is tantamount to infanticide, the obvious follow-up question will be: “So you’re accusing Senator Obama of being in favor of infanticide?” Thus Biden will have to avoid using the word “infanticide,” but whatever word he uses, it will still invite the follow-up question: “So you’re accusing Senator Obama of [fill in the blank]?”
But whatever problems the Biden candidacy may pose for Obama or NARAL or Planned Parenthood or the ACLU, it will produce even more problems for the Catholic hierarchy. Given their positive obligation to instruct the faithful on the content of Church teaching and their negative obligation to avoid scandalizing the faithful, how should they respond to the fact that a Catholic who doesn’t take seriously the Church teaching on abortion is running for the second-highest office in the land? Four years ago they faced this question in a more acute form when another pro-choice Catholic, Sen. John Kerry, ran for a still higher office.
During the Kerry campaign in 2004, most of the bishops didn’t acquit themselves very well — with a few notable exceptions, e.g., Archbishops Chaput of Denver and Burke, formerly of St. Louis. Otherwise, the bishops generally contented themselves with an abstract statement that Catholics probably shouldn’t support pro-abortion candidates.
Abstract statements are fine when bishops are talking about adultery; it is enough to say, “Don’t commit adultery.” They don’t have to concretize the principle by saying, “Don’t commit adultery with your next-door neighbor, Mrs. Smith.” But when it comes to voting in America, abstract statements just don’t work very well. If bishops want Catholics to have a clean and well-informed conscience when it comes to the question of whether they should vote for the likes of Joe Biden, they have to say in plain English, “Don’t vote for the Obama/Biden ticket.”
(This is not the same, by the way, as saying, “Vote for John McCain.” There are many ways of not voting for Obama/Biden: You can, of course, vote for McCain; or you can stay home on election day (a very bad idea); or you can vote for a third-party candidate; or you can vote but leave the presidential line blank; or you can write in the name of your mother-in-law.)
I don’t mean that the bishops have to use those precise words. There are other ways of communicating the message, including the one that some bishops have used with other Catholic pro-choice politicians: namely, telling the politician in question not to receive Communion (while at the same time letting the public know that the bishop has made this statement).
Of course, the secularist community will cry foul if the bishops take a step like this regarding Biden: “This is un-American! A violation of the principle of separation of church and state!” Bishops should remind themselves that the secularists are not friends of Christianity; neither are they likely to be converted to friendship as a result of the bishops abstaining from a denunciation of Biden.
A slightly more serious concern is the fact that “nominal” Catholics will echo this protest, just as they echo the words and ideas of the secularists regarding almost everything else. If the bishops take a strong stand against Biden, for some nominal Catholics this will be the final push out the door of the Church; many who have only partially disappeared up till now will disappear for good. But many others will be drawn back toward the Church when they see that Catholicism is not just a tired and withering-away institution, but is a fighting faith led by courageous (or at least non-cowardly) bishops.
But the greatest concern of the bishops should be not with secularists and not with nominal Catholics, but with “real” Catholics, the hardcore faithful. There is a line from Milton’s “Lycidas” that sums up the relationship that has existed for many years now between the faithful and the Catholic bishops: “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.” For decades the faithful laity have lived in pain while yearning for effective episcopal leadership. They have watched the Church decline in strength. They have patiently borne attempts by “progressives” to water down orthodox Catholicism. They have lived through the appalling sex-abuse scandal. They have seen the Church offer a relatively weak resistance to the abortion movement, leaving the real resistance to Evangelical Protestants.
The Biden candidacy offers the bishops a golden opportunity to give heart to these faithful and orthodox Catholics.