The Catholic Thing
Joe Biden: The Rise of an Empty Man Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Monday, 02 February 2009

On the morning of the inauguration, according to news and eyewitness reports, the streets near Georgetown University were blocked by a fleet of limousines and police on motorcycles. It was for Joe Biden, attending Mass on campus at Dahlgren Chapel. It was a sign that would now mark the presence of Joseph Biden, the risen Joe Biden, ascending to a post of high honorifics. Bereft of both knowledge and wisdom, he will nevertheless stand in the high councils of state, with an entourage of cars flashing lights to herald his progress.

The cars assembled at their post conveyed a message, as inescapable as it was portentous: Here, in a chapel, affecting to be in communion with his Church, is a man who has trumpeted his rejection of the most central moral teachings of the Church. During the presidential campaign he offered, as one of the prime accomplishments in his political life, that he helped to defeat the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. With that stroke he managed to preserve, unimpaired, the right to kill an unborn child at every stage of its life. We have had a sense of what it means to “give scandal” or to misinstruct the faithful about the teachings of their own Church. But now it is done even more dramatically, with the presence of limousines to convey the point: that you can be a prime defender of the right to abortion at every stage and for any reason – nay, you can even exult in public for your achievements in securing that “right” – and still be a “good Catholic.”

Twenty-one years ago, when Robert Bork was nominated to the Court, Joe Biden was the chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. In Bork, Biden was faced with a notable conservative who had been famously dismissive of natural law. For Bork and others, natural law simply furnished a set of airy slogans to which liberal judges appealed when they sought to evade the discipline of legal reasoning. Those antics gave natural law a bad name. Bork found a surer guide to judgment in the “positive” law – the law that was “posited” or enacted in statutes or in the text of the Constitution.

Faced then with a positivist among judges, Joe Biden opened the hearings on confirmation by staking out a strong position on natural law:

As a child of God, [he said] I believe my rights are not derived from the Constitution. My rights are not derived from any government. My rights are not derived from any majority. My rights are because I exist. They were given to me and each of my fellow citizens by our creator and they represent the essence of human dignity. [Emphasis added.]

But that summoning statement for the natural law should have struck in the most telling way against Biden’s stance on abortion. James Wilson, one of the premier minds among the American Founders, raised the question of when we acquire those rights that flow to us by nature. And the answer was: As soon as we began to be. By Biden’s own words, the doctrine of natural rights should protect the offspring in the womb as soon as we know it “exists.” He can evade the problem by affecting to be agnostic on the question of when human life begins. He could say, with Barack Obama, that the question is above his pay grade, if he simply neglects to consult the textbooks on embryology.

Clearly, he does not wish to leave that decision, on the beginning of human life, to the judgments confirmed by legislators. And so he must be willing to leave that judgment in the hands of the pregnant woman to decide for herself, on the basis of her own “perceptions,” woven with her self-interest. But would he have applied that standard to any other issue of natural rights? The question of slavery, as Lincoln said, was “whether a Negro is not or is a man.” Would Biden have left that answer in the hands of the owners of the slaves, whose interests would have been most directly affected by the judgment? Could it be, then, as Biden said, that we have rights that do not depend on the votes of majorities – but whether we exist at all is a question that may be left in the hands of people who have the most direct interest in denying our existence or our standing as human beings?

For Biden, incoherence lay on every path. Four years after the hearings on Robert Bork, Biden was faced with hearings over Clarence Thomas. The charge made against Thomas was that he had once done a lecture offering a pitch to take natural law seriously again. Biden then put out the warning, as earnestly as the warnings issued over Bork: that if we have a jurist who takes natural law seriously, there will be less regulation of the economy and more people dying then in industrial accidents. We may take these moments as snapshots of Joe Biden, to be placed in the album, as part of the chronicle of an American story: the rise, ever upward, of an empty man.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Liz, February 03, 2009
Joe Biden, self-professed Catholic in good standing continues to flaunt his egregious ideology whenever he can - most notably when receiving Communion - there is a specific canon which can prohibit this - why is it not put to use? Is each individual diocese autonomous and not subject to Roman Catholic canon law? Boggles my mind!! Where are our leaders (bishops) - have they become Cafeteria Cathollics also?
written by Virginia Hoyns, February 03, 2009
How very sad this is the caliber of people we send to Washington. Daschle, Pelosi, Rangel, Dodd , Kennedy, Harry Reid and others not named here. What kind of example do they send our young people? Where are our Bishops--only a few of them actually point out how misguided these politicians are. We need term limits also
Chairman, English
written by Ken Colston, February 03, 2009
Excellent article. Does Mr.Arkes know where Judge Bork, as a Catholic convert since the 80's S.C. nomination hearings, himself stand on the natural law? I'm surprised that Mr. Arkes doesn't criticize Judge Bork's denial of the natural law at that time.
written by William H. Phelan, February 03, 2009
I look forward to each of Mr. Arkes columns. The criticism of the American Catholic leadership both religious and lay by other commentators here centers on a "fruit of Vatican II", to whit, there is no Hell, or, if there is, no one is there! Our leaders will never have to answer. Fools! "FEAR of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom". OR "The floor of Hell is paved with the skulls of Bishops" St John Chrysostom
LCDR, USN (ret)
written by Keith Toepfer, February 03, 2009
There is a sense in which Prof. Arkes is correct that Mr. Biden is empty. However, I think it is even more obvious that the man, rather than being truly empty, is full of himself, and possibly also the spirit of the "Father of Lies."
written by Michael, February 03, 2009
It is common knowledge that Senator Biden lost his wife in a tragic auto accident early in his marriage with two young children to care for. He made a comeback probably in great measure to his Faith and he kept his children going plus his job in the US Senate. He deserves a great deal of credit for this. Not many of us have to deal with that degree of devestation in our lives. He goes to Mass and has his Faith after all of this.There but for the Grace of God go we. We are all a work in progress
written by Pam, February 03, 2009
As a long-ago graduate of Georgetown University, I have been continually embarrassed through the subsequent years by the antics of the University. Allowing Biden into Dahlgren chapel to hear Mass is yet another indication of how far off the mark the Jesuits can be and frequently are.
Contributor, TCT
written by Hadley Arkes, February 04, 2009
Re Michael --The tragedy suffered by Joe Biden was very much in mind when I wrote. But I couldn’t see that this experience offsets the deep injury he does in misinstructing Catholics about the teaching of the Church on the matter of abortion, or the responsibility he bears in preserving, unimpaired, this “right” to kill the unborn on a massive scale I think we can take fair note of these things without diminishing our sympathy for the pain he has suffered
Prof., Writer, TCT
written by Hadley Arkes, February 04, 2009
Re Ken Colston --Mr. Colston must be unaware that I had a notable exchange with Robert Bork precisely on these matters way back then, in the pages of First Things. See: Bork, "Natural Law and the Constitution," First Things (March 1992), pp. 16-20; Arkes, reply, First Things (May 1992), pp. 45-48. Robert Bork is a dear friend, with a large, generous nature.. He preserves his dubiety about natural law, but he never closes himself off to the pleadings of his friends.
written by James Michael Fenlon, February 04, 2009
Thank you for your response. My understanding of Roe Vs Wade is that it is currently the law of the land. Any Democrat who openly espouses the Pro Life position is soon without a job in the Democratic Party due to loss of support and funding. The Law must be changed. Until then is it better for Joe Biden to be employed and in line with the Democratic position in supporting the Law as it stands or should he openly an loudly resist this law? What a dilemma for him!
written by Nellie Edwards, June 18, 2009
How I wish you could have a few words w/ biden! Alas, simple logic escapes him though, so it would be as if you were an annoying little nat to him. He has lost the ability to use right reason, due to slamming the door on is the case for kennedy, pelosi and all who serve the master of lies. All is not lost though...prayer is powerful and we can pray them back into reality, by the Grace of God.

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