Catholic Bishops and Democratic Theologians

In case you hadn’t noticed, theological rumination has recently become a major preoccupation among leaders of the Democratic Party. When asked by Pastor Rick Warren at the Saddleback Forum when a baby acquires human rights, Barack Obama first changed the subject and then professed a faux intellectual humility about when human life begins, saying that the answer was “above my pay grade.” Not so far above his pay grade, mind you, to prevent him from endorsing a woman’s right to abortion at every stage of an unborn child’s life. He may claim not to know when human life begins, but of one thing he’s absolutely sure: it ends whenever a pregnant woman chooses, even for babies who survive abortion. As befits a former president of The Harvard Law Review, breathtakingly brilliant according to his teachers, intellectual humility can yield a carload of specific policy prescriptions.

It’s a shame that Senator Obama didn’t have time to consult with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi before he spoke at Saddleback. When it comes to humility, she’s leagues ahead of him. This no doubt reflects her many years of Catholic formation, from which she learned (as she said to Tom Brokaw last Sunday) that when life begins is “an open question” and that theological speculation about it shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with “the woman’s right to choose.” Describing herself as “an ardent, practicing Catholic,” the speaker distanced herself from Obama’s self-professed ignorance by noting that she had “studied” Catholic teaching on abortion “for a long time.” And from that study, she has concluded that the Church doesn’t know what it’s talking about when it comes to Church teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is for presumptuous Catholics, but for humble Catholics like herself Roe v. Wade reflects a lectio probabilior about the proper moral understanding of the value of life before birth.

Comes now the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware. As with Pelosi, his brand of Catholicism seems to carry with it a certain interpretative license with respect to Church teaching, especially on abortion. In Biden’s case, that means being all over the lot. When he first came to the Senate in the early 1970s, he adopted a traditional pro-life stance. After Roe v. Wade, however, his position, like that of most Catholic Democrats, began to morph into “I’m personally opposed to abortion, but….” The Senator, mind you, isn’t pro-abortion; he’s just pro-choice. You’d have to be an unborn child not to see the difference.

In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor last year, Biden stated, “The animating principle of my faith, as taught to me by church and home, was that the cardinal sin was abuse of power. It was not only required as a good Catholic to abhor and avoid abuse of power, but to do something to end that abuse.” As examples of how he applied that lesson, he cited his support for legislation seeking to halt genocide and violence against women – both God, home, and mother issues that require neither political courage nor distinctly Catholic insight. What is striking about Biden’s description of Catholic teaching – other than its jaw-dropping reductionism – is that he never draws a connection between the principle as he states it and his ardent political support for abortion. One can hardly think of an abuse of power greater than that involved in the destruction of an innocent unborn human being by its own mother. Along with many other Catholics in public life, Biden has learned to use his religion for politically expedient purposes, and to forsake it for the same reason.

The rationalizations of Obama, Pelosi, and Biden in defending abortion wouldn’t pass muster in a high-school logic class. But politicians generally don’t get paid for making logical arguments. They grasp at whatever convenient sophistry happens to be available without fear that their reasoning will be closely examined. For too long, Catholic politicians have been given a free ride on their deviations from the Church’s moral teaching – partly because much of their audience has been as badly formed as they have, and partly because the bishops have been gun-shy about calling them to account.

That era may be coming to an end. In the past forty-eight hours, three prominent archbishops – Charles Chaput of Denver, Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and Edward Cardinal Egan of New York – have spoken out forcefully about Pelosi’s and Biden’s misstatements on the nature of Church teaching and their obligations as ostensibly faithful Catholics. Their sentiments have been strongly reinforced in yet another statement issued by Justin Cardinal Rigali of Philadelphia on behalf of the entire U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. These affirmations of the faith come hard on the heels of the August 19 statement from Archbishop Raymond Burke, now Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, saying that Catholic politicians favoring abortion should refrain from taking Communion. These men are to be congratulated for their pastoral leadership and courage, which will have beneficial effects long after this political season is over. In the meantime, if Pelosi, Biden, and other Catholic politicians think they’re going to get a free ride this time around, they may find themselves confronting change they can really believe in.


Michael Uhlmann (1939-2019) served in the Reagan White House and taught American politics at the Claremont Graduate University.