What Won’t We Tolerate?

Joe Biden wants you to know that he is Catholic. Joe Biden wants you to know that his Catholic faith is very important to him. Joe Biden takes his faith so seriously, that he once told a reporter on the campaign trail, “The next Republican that tells me I’m not religious I’m going to shove my rosary beads down their throat.” That was back in 2005.

With that in mind, let me say up front: Joe Biden is Catholic. The indelible character of Baptism is sufficient to establish that. Moreover, I see no reason to doubt him when he says that his faith is deeply important to him. I find no reason to doubt the sincerity of his convictions.

While I do not question the sincerity of his convictions, I do wonder about their content. What are we to think of a man who, like Joe Biden, would tout the way in which his Catholic faith shapes his politics, and then ask his fellow citizens to vote for him on the promise that he will devote himself to defending and promoting the single greatest injustice in American life since chattel slavery – i. e., abortion?

Long gone are the days when pro-choice Catholics like Mario Cuomo defended their willingness to tolerate a right to abortion on the grounds that their personal opposition to abortion as Catholics gave them no right to impose that opposition on others. The Cuomo Compromise has slowly, irresistibly, and predictably devolved into the position now exemplified by Biden: the Catholic faith teaches us to seek justice; abortion rights are a matter of justice; therefore, I will defend the abortion license where it is threatened and expand it where it is lacking.

Biden’s is a pretty standard position for Catholic Democrats these days. For what it’s worth, Biden seems to have arrived at this position more recently than some of his fellow Catholic Democrats. Happily, not all Catholics on the Left are buying it.

“Biden’s position on abortion is untenable from any Catholic perspective,” writes Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter, “The theological proscription against the intentional taking of a human life is not something that can be set aside for the kind of libertarian argument favored by pro-choice advocates.”

Winters concludes, “We Catholics should be able to explain how our faith informs all of our decisions, including our political ones. Biden’s decision to lean in to the discussion, and not to avoid it, will be good for Catholicism, whether or not it is good for the Democrats.”


Winters speaks, I suspect, for a lot of Catholic Democrats – perhaps not a majority, but a substantial minority. This November, most of these pro-life Catholic Democrats will go to the polls and vote – as they have for decades – for a presidential candidate who supports the abortion license. As frustrating as it can be for pro-lifers who aren’t Democrats to admit, supporting the abortion license and voting for candidates who do are not the same thing: the former is never justifiable, the latter may be, but only for “truly grave moral reasons.”

Tens of millions of American Catholics believe that a morally serious person can look at the industrial-scale slaughter of innocent children in this country – close to a million abortions performed each year – and say, “I am willing, not only to defend that butcher’s bill, but I promise to expand it, if doing so allows me to pursue justice on other fronts.”

For decades, a large slice of American Catholics has convinced itself (or resigned itself) to supporting just such candidates, not because they also support abortion, but despite their opposition to it. This November, millions of American Catholics will do it again.

Yet how many of these same Catholics – people who have for decades insisted that they could compartmentalize their vote, hermetically sealing themselves off from complicity in the horror of the abortion policies their candidates favored – now insist that to vote for Donald Trump is to make oneself complicit in everything the man does?

If one is willing to tolerating 60 million abortions in order to pursue justice on other fronts – even assuming all those ancillary causes are, in fact, just – what evil will one NOT tolerate?

To be clear, this is not intended as a defense of the current president or his policies, still less an argument in favor of voting for his reelection. Rather, I mention it because it throws into sharp relief the way in which the politics of abortion – more than any other issue or policy – have degraded the ability of most American Catholics to reason well about the exercise of prudence. Nothing (not even the abuse crisis, I would argue) has done more to undermine the Catholic Church’s credible witness in political life than her impotence with regard to abortion.

Politicians like Joe Biden are politically immune to Catholic criticism of their support for abortion. It is unwavering support from millions of Catholic voters who make them so immune. And does anyone doubt that pro-life Catholics who have made a long-standing alliance with Republicans over the issue of abortion have not also been shaped by that partnership in other ways?

November 3 will be here sooner than we think. Many Catholics have long ago made up their minds about whom they will vote for. Many are happy with “their guy.” Many loathe “their guy.” Many are exasperated by both choices. We can be sure that each side will look with disdain and horror at the moral compromises the other is willing to make.

For many of us will be painfully aware that we will choose between the lesser of two evils. Maybe now is as good a time as any to recall that, while faith without works is dead, ending injustice is not the measure of the Christian life.


*Image: Witches’ Flight by Francisco Goya, c.1798 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.