To what shall we compare the first 100 days of our “devout” Catholic president? In an unforgettable moment, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, said after a trip to Asia that at present, “those who best realize the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese.” In a similar vein, there are American Catholics who think that President Biden – despite a welter of “respectful disagreements” with the Church (i.e., abortion, sex, conscience rights, religious liberty, and players to be named later) – was “preaching Catholic social teaching” when he spoke to Congress last week.
The Chinese Communists and the Biden Administration talk – a lot – about the common good and national unity. What they mean by those terms, of course, is another thing. For all the differences between them, they have both shown themselves quite willing to ride roughshod over Catholics – unity and tolerance be damned – in pursuit of radical, party-driven social agendas.
The American bishops, thus, find themselves at a crossroads. To let things go on as they have in only the first three months of a presidential term would give the impression that they’re just fine with a self-proclaimed “devout” Catholic politician acting this way.
A large majority of bishops are not. They sense that there’s more at stake than political issues. Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann, head of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said of Biden, “He doesn’t have the authority to teach what it means to be Catholic – that’s our responsibility as bishops. . . .Whether intentional or not, he’s trying to usurp our authority.”
If the bishops can rouse themselves to action – as a body would be best, but individually is good too – they might just give the Church on these shores a new spirit.
A few – the usual suspects – want to head off confrontation. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy has argued: “I do not see how depriving the president or other political leaders of the Eucharist based on their public policy stance can be interpreted in our society as anything other than a weaponization of the Eucharist.” McElroy is an intelligent man; he knows quite well that there are many other ways to interpret denial of Communion, not least that Catholics who stubbornly persist in opposing the Church on multiple fronts have already broken with ecclesial communion, and should, therefore, not present themselves for the Eucharist.
Abortion, of course, is a central bone of contention. But if the bishops give the impression that it’s the only reason they need to rebuke Biden – while passively conceding that he’s “preaching Catholic social doctrine” on things like refugees, poverty, climate, etc. – they will lose this fight. Because it will appear that they’re merely expressing the usual disagreements over particular policies that occur even within political parties.
Catholic Social Doctrine doesn’t simply mean increased spending on progressive social programs. It recognizes the need for government when no other actor can perform a task (solidarity). But it also warns of potential tyranny and demoralization of people and civic institutions when government seek to assume authority over everything – family, faith, morals, even personal attitudes (subsidiarity).
Abortion is a clarifying issue because it gives a sharp edge to these and a host of other questions about politics and the moral order.
There have been rumors – and more recently denials – that our bishops are preparing a statement about the Eucharist and Catholics in public life. Of course, political rumbles have started: Why make abortion a line in the sand? Why not go after conservative Catholic politicians over immigration or climate or racism?
These claims are, of course, disingenuous since there is legitimate debate – and the objectors know it –on how to handle, even how to understand, normal political questions like these. Killing innocent human life is on an entirely different plane.
That our bishops are considering such a move – and might vote on it at their June meeting – gives reason for hope. They should also rebut the red herring that they’re engaging in politics by affirming Catholic doctrine. Because if they can’t tell some Catholics not to present themselves for Communion, how will they tell anyone anything of consequence?
In almost the entire world, church leaders hardly even make the effort. The Argentine President Alberto Fernandez met with Pope Francis, accompanied by his “partner” Fabiola Yanez, as abortion was being debated in Argentina. The Vatican Press Office said that they discussed, “the economic-financial crisis, the fight against poverty, corruption and drug trafficking, efforts to build up society and the protection of life from conception.” (Other sources said life issues never came up.) The Argentine legislature, with the president’s backing, legalized abortion in January, even though two-thirds of Argentinians were opposed.
In any case, the meeting with the pope was all smiles. Fernandez and Yanez received Communion. No special warnings about co-operation with an intrinsic evil that annually destroys 54 million around the globe. Francis is horrified, rightly, when hundreds of African migrants drown in the Mediterranean yearly. Our American press tears its garments when even one person dies trying to cross the Rio Grande. And the world grows ever more hysterical about the potential human costs of climate change – in 100 years, if the models are correct.
The slaughter of the innocents happening today, and every day for the foreseeable future – about 150,000 globally, the equivalent of killing everyone in Cambridge, Massachusetts plus the entire faculty and staff at Harvard, every day – well, that’s just one of many issues because Catholics and others are not “single-issue voters.”
We hear a lot that the Church should be “in dialogue” with Biden and Catholics like him. The Church should, of course, converse with everyone who sincerely wishes to talk. But this call for continued political “dialogue” is not sincere. It’s a way to ward off the recognition that many Catholics in public life have chosen developments in their political parties over their Church.
If it were me, I’d let dialogue take care of itself. The Church’s main mission is already large: calling us all, even politicians, to conversion.
*Image: David and Nathan by Angelica Kauffman, c. 1797 [Vorarlberger Landesmuseum, Vorarlberg, Austria]. The painting depicts the prophet rebuking the king from 2 Samuel 12:9: “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?”