From a Catholic point of view, the trouble with Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi isn’t only that they engage in the sinful act of promoting and facilitating abortion. Rather, it is that they preach heresy, moral heresy. They do this when they say, either expressly or by very clear implication, that abortion, so far from being morally wrong, is a fundamental right that deserves legal protection. This is contrary to the age-old teaching of their religion. The correct name for teaching things contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church is heresy.
Things are made even worse when our bishops rarely chide, and never sanction, Biden and Pelosi for preaching this heresy. And Pope Francis doesn’t help when he welcomes these two heretics to Rome, not by rending his garments, but with smiles and kisses.
By and large, Americans tend to agree with liberal Protestants that the essence of religion is morality. Doctrine is non-essential; it is an accessory, maybe no more than an ornament. “It doesn’t matter what a person believes. The important thing is that he or she be a good person” – this is a characteristically American sentiment. It’s a good sentiment insofar as it helps enable Americans of a great variety of beliefs to live in peace and harmony with one another. And it’s also “good for business,” for it guarantees that doctrinal disputes will not interfere with buying and selling.
But it’s not so good a sentiment from a Catholic point of view, since Catholicism is a religion that regards doctrine – true doctrine, that is – as one of its essential elements. The battle against false doctrine has been going on at least since the writings of St. Paul.
A classic formulation of the idea that doctrine doesn’t matter was given by the great English poet and critic, Matthew Arnold (1822-88), who re-defined religion (by which he meant Christianity) as “morality touched with emotion.” If doctrine doesn’t matter, then neither does heresy. And if neither doctrine nor heresy matter, then who cares if Biden and Pelosi are moral heretics?
Biden and Pelosi are the two best-known Catholics in America. And they are not simply well-known people who happen to be Catholic. Their fame as politicians is inseparable from their fame as Catholics. Unlike certain movie stars or professional athletes who happen to be Catholic, but rarely or never mention this fact because they consider their religion to be something quite distinct and separate from their professional skills, Pelosi and Biden wear their Catholicism on their sleeves. They frequently tell us that their political beliefs are largely inspired by their religious beliefs. It’s their Catholic sense of justice and compassion – according to them – that inspires them to keep abortion safe and legal (though not rare) for unfortunate women who will suffer needlessly if abortion is not available.
When the two most famous Catholics in America tell us that their religion – our religion – allows abortion, and when our bishops (not to mention the pope) do little or nothing to contradict the pro-abortion messages given by these ultra-famous Catholics, who can be surprised when many rank-and-file Catholics draw the conclusion that abortion isn’t really wrong?
“However,” it will be objected, “the pope and the bishops have been perfectly clear that abortion is a grave sin. Again and again, they have iterated this ancient Church teaching. Not a single American bishop has ever hinted, let alone asserted, that abortion may be permissible, even in very hard cases. What more can they do to squelch any pro-abortion heresy?”
Sure. But everyone knows there’s a big difference, a very big difference, between saying that something is wrong and really meaning it. We observe this distinction every day in child-rearing. Almost all parents agree that their young children should not eat too much candy. But some parents enforce this rule, while others don’t; they simply pay lip service to it. Likewise, all cops agree that drug dealing is a serious crime. But in a corrupt police department, many cops simply pay lip service to this truth as they take payoffs to look the other way.
Do our Catholic bishops really mean it when they say that abortion is a very grave sin? Or are they simply paying lip service to a Catholic moral doctrine? Now, I don’t think any bishop is taking bribes from the likes of NARAL, Planned Parenthood, or the ACLU. A bishop, no matter how poor he may be in other ways, is above that.
But I’m far from certain that bishops are above taking “bribes” of respect and friendship offered by society’s social and economic leaders, many of whom – probably most – are largely indifferent as to the sinfulness of abortion. What these high-ranking people are really serious about is economic activity: the buying and selling of goods and services. (“The chief business of the American people is business,” as Calvin Coolidge once said.) As long as abortion doesn’t interfere with these activities, why should they care?
They don’t mind when a bishop issues an abstract condemnation of abortion; after all, that’s one of the things he gets paid to do. But if a bishop were to get really serious about this – if, for example, he were to excommunicate a Catholic member of Congress – well, that would be a different story. How could a leader of society continue to respect so wayward a churchman?
Given that the two most famous American Catholics tell us that abortion is compatible with Catholicism, and given that our bishops have had no more than a weak-kneed response to the Biden-Pelosi heresy, who can be surprised when millions of ordinary Catholics, especially young Catholics (whose catechesis, let us remember, has been poor for the last half century), believe that the Catholic religion no longer considers abortion to be a terrible sin?
We no longer burn heretics at the stake, thank God. But it doesn’t follow that Catholicism can afford to pretend that famous heretics are not a grave danger to the faith.
*Image: Auto-da-fé by Eugenio Lucas Velázquez 1853 [Museo Nacional del Romanticismo, Madrid]
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Hadley Arkes’ Gliding Serenely into Heresy
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