Like everyone else, I have been trying to figure out what effect Barack Obama’s choice of Joe Biden as candidate for vice president will have in November. The future is always unpredictable, and vice presidential candidates rarely matter much. Biden, I’m convinced, will have little if any effect on the political outcome. But another pro-choice Catholic in a national election will definitely damage the Church, if our bishops continue – as they have in past elections – to sound an uncertain trumpet.
Biden is a likeable man, but a political zero. Despite his working class background, Pennsylvania roots, foreign policy experience, nominal Catholicism – all things supposed to fill in gaps on Obama’s resume – one fact stands out: He has no national appeal. He’s been elected six times in Delaware, but he got one percent of the vote this year in Iowa, the lowest of any serious candidate, before he pulled out of the race. His earlier run blew up when he plagiarized speeches by a British politician. His gaffe-proneness is legendary. Thirteen percent of the electorate says his selection makes them more likely to vote for Obama, but my guess is no one who was uncertain about Obama last week is now certain because of Biden. This man will not cut a wide swath for Obama through workers and Catholics in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.
Biden’s choice has the feel of calculation by a group of Democrats who do not understand Catholics and live in a political bubble. They looked at the way Democrats fled Obama in Pennsylvania and West Virginia for Hillary Clinton, and began putting together a composite photograph of a person they needed to get working-class and especially Catholic votes. I myself come from the same general background as Biden – Northeast Catholic ethnic. But Biden does not, in Chris Matthews’ weird phrase, “give me a tingle down my leg.” In fact, he doesn’t sound like any working-class Catholic I’ve ever met. He may, as reported, take the train back to Delaware every night, but he sounds like a focus group’s idea of a Catholic.
The news is full of stories about his tough talk and courage in telling you exactly what he thinks. This is truly news to me. I remember listening very carefully to him during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for John Roberts. Biden was dancing around like a boxer who knew he had no punch to deliver and would get his clock cleaned if he moved in close. It’s true that he once told Slobodan Milosevic to his face that he was a war criminal and belonged in jail. But that’s an easy thing to do when there are plenty of people around to protect you and you know that the media will lionize you for it.
More courageous for an alleged Catholic would be some tough talk about Democrats and abortion. Instead, after ritual concessions that the Church may be right on abortion as such, he quickly moves, in a sequence of premeditated lawyerly steps, to say that he would only appoint justices to the Supreme Court who believe that the Fourteenth Amendment contains a right to privacy that protects a woman’s right to choose. This is a now all too familiar position: the public Catholics who nominally agree with the Church on abortion, but really follow pro-abortion principles in practice. They are like people who claim to oppose slavery, but cannot see any way, “in a religiously pluralistic society like ours,” to follow principle and seek to change the law.
All too familiar, but it puts a fresh question to the American bishops that they understandably have been reluctant to answer. This is the second presidential election in a row with a pro-abortion Catholic on the ticket. The Catholic vote will decide who becomes president. Given Hispanic immigration and the continued growth of the Church in the United States, it will likely do so for decades, perhaps for the rest of the twenty-first century. How much longer can this public spectacle of pro-abortion Catholics go on before it is taken as settled practice in the United States that the Church allows the Catholic name to be yoked with the slaughter of the innocents?
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and a very few other courageous bishops have said that Biden should refrain from taking Communion. There is still a latent anti-Catholicism in America that might rear up if bishops go further. But I would like to see them go at least that far. And along the way, other Catholic voices need to add that this year may determine whether Roe v. Wade is reversed and the question of abortion is returned to the states, or whether the next round of Supreme Court appointments will bring us, as a nation and a Church, into even longer and deeper complicity with a culture of death.