Prior to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Catholics were bombarded with think piece after think piece on the appropriateness of one candidate over another. The fault lines were obvious, as usual. “Conservative” Catholics tended toward voting for the incumbent, Donald J. Trump, despite whatever personal vices, uncouth language, or policy limitations he harbored. Moderate and “progressive” Catholics tended toward voting for Joe Biden.
Similar to the 2004 presidential election in which the Protestant Republican, George W. Bush, ran for reelection against the Catholic Democrat, John Kerry, the 2020 election featured the Protestant GOP candidate, Trump, against the Catholic Democrat, Biden. Thus, the 2004 and 2020 elections brought to the national conversation this question: “To what extent is a Catholic candidate truly ‘Catholic’ if their views and positions contradict Catholic teaching?”
There seem to be two major groups of Catholic voters in the United States. The first is those who vote on issues in an ordered, hierarchical sense. By this, I mean that they examine the many issues affecting the common good (abortion, euthanasia, marriage and the family, poverty, immigration, ecological concerns), understand their proper ordering, and vote accordingly.
For example, while the Catholic Church opposes abortion and the willful destruction of the environment, it would be disingenuous to equivocate the murder of an unborn child with spitting gum on the sidewalk. That is not to say that the Church would support the latter but that there is far greater moral evil at work in the former. This first group of Catholic voters might be accused of being myopic and hyper-focused on one or two main issues (such as abortion or euthanasia) to the exclusion of several other legitimate issues. But they nonetheless vote in a way that weighs moral matters on a scale.
The second major group of Catholic voters includes people who either reject the Church’s understanding of hierarchy in issues pertaining to the common good, or they replace grave evils with issues they think are more important. Those who reject the Church’s distinction between intrinsic moral evils and other morally problematic actions tend to conflate everything that is bad as sharing the same moral seriousness.
For example, these voters may feel that while abortion is bad, so too is fracking. Therefore, they will claim no moral difference between voting for the anti-abortion, pro natural gas candidate or the candidate who solemnly promises to end fracking while also promising to keep abortion enshrined as a “right.” These voters lack a mature understanding of moral theology, which is evident in their rejection of intrinsic moral evils and those possible evils that are subject to prudential disagreement.
Even worse, however, are those Catholic voters who do not simply reject a hierarchy of issues but create their own hierarchy instead. Thus, it is not like the former group who simply sees no difference between voting for someone who supports abortion or supports fracking. Instead, these voters rewrite Catholic moral teaching to satisfy their own priorities. Inspired by prelates like cardinal-designate Robert McElroy and Cardinal Blase Cupich, they deny the fact that abortion is a “preeminent” life issue and suggest that other issues—such as climate change and gun violence—take priority.
Following the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, Biden lamented the decision and even called into question the legitimacy of the highest court. His recent executive order aims to keep abortion legal and to protect Roe v. Wade by enshrining it into federal law. As Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., pointed out,
No pro-abortion Catholic politician can any longer claim he/she is just implementing and following the ‘law of the land.’ They’re going [sic] have to take undeniable and explicit concrete steps to promote and facilitate access to abortion.
Biden has outed himself as not only supporting a once-existent law allowing abortion but as an abortion advocate. The public versus private position on abortion was always artificial, but any idea that Biden was simply respecting the determination of the Supreme Court can now be dismissed with evidence to the contrary.
The “Catholic case for Biden” never existed. It was always an attempt to subvert the hierarchy of moral issues and to either equivocate or deny the preeminence of abortion as the gravest moral evil of our day. Defenses of a Catholic’s vote for Biden included an appeal to “social realism and minimal reason,” which pointed to Biden as a “rational” person—a claim that loses probability with each passing day. Others pointed to how Biden’s platform contains more elements of Catholic social teaching, including policies regarding poverty, racism, healthcare, and immigration.
Of course, this is done in a simplistic manner—the infamously heterodox NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice created a neat scorecard, showing how Biden compared to Trump on a variety of topics. After giving Trump a checkmark on abortion, the rest of his scorecard receives a red “X,” whereas Biden is considered the candidate who “rejects racism,” “supports the priorities of the disabled community,” and “supports the health and wellbeing of older adults.”
It is unclear how the NETWORK Lobby measures success in any of these worthwhile causes, or how they can reconcile their claims with Biden’s actual track record on things like racism and his response to the Covid-19 pandemic. On paper, there seems to be a “Catholic case for Biden” only when the various categories of issues are reduced to an absurd simplification that paints Biden as the noble gentleman against the savage, “Bad, Orange Man.”
“The Catholic case for Biden” was never a case, nor was it remotely Catholic by any conventional sense of the word. Whether a Catholic voted in accordance with the traditional hierarchy of moral issues or by an equalizing of the issues themselves, there were far more Catholic reasons to vote against Biden than for him.
Biden’s lust for abortion and contraception; his support of homosexual unions and the promotion of LGBTQ ideology in our schools; his support for euthanasia; his sending billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine while there are food shortages at home; his silence on attacks against Catholic churches, pregnancy centers, and pro-life groups; these all reveal that he deserved Catholic support as much as a meat butcher deserves the vegan’s.
Perhaps in the future, certain Catholic voters will admit that their preference of one candidate over the other is entirely personal instead of trying to justify it under the veneer of a flimsy “Catholic case.”
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