When it came to the abortion question at the vice presidential debate, Paul Ryan gave a pretty good answer on how his Catholic faith informed his position on the issue. Not perfect, of course, but pretty good. And Joe Biden gave the classic “personally pro-life” answer:
My religion defines who I am, and I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life, and it has particularly informed my social doctrine. Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves. People who need help.
With regard to abortion, I accept my Church’s position on abortion as a de fide doctrine. Life begins at conception. I accept that position in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians, and Muslims and and Jews…I just refuse to do that, unlike my friend here, the Congressman. I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people, women that they cannot control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor in my view, and the Supreme Court. And I’m not going to interfere with that.
On a philosophical level, I think Biden’s approach is unsustainable as a coherent answer to the abortion question. Consider what the Church says on abortion. Among the teachings:
- Abortion’s an intrinsic evil (which means that it’s gravely sinful in every single case, regardless of circumstance), to the point that anyone who gets one and who helps someone else get one is excommunicated.
- The laws should oppose abortion.
So does Joe Biden accept that? He apparently says he has. Therein lies a problem for him: because abortion is always wrong, and he accepts that, and he’s a legislator, you would think that his voting record would indicate that he has attempted to reduce the number of abortions by supporting laws that would make it illegal.
He’s not doing so good. And he actually had to draw a rejoinder from the bishops the day after the debate because of his untrue statement on the HHS mandate over contraception. On the bright side, he hasn’t voted 100% pro-choice. So there’s that. But on a whole slew of other life-related things, he doesn’t seem to be following what the Church proscribes.
So Biden is left in a bad spot here. Either he’s lying about how he feels dealing with Church teaching on abortion, or he lacks the courage of his convictions. Though his words on abortion may poll well, they’re incoherent nonetheless.
Let me put this another way, because I believe this reasoning applies to any deeply held conviction on a deeply serious issue, often one that is life or death or fundamental to a community. It doesn’t even have to be a conviction based on religious reasoning. Let’s say you support gay marriage, as a large chunk of people my age do. A man says, “Well, I support gay marriage, but I don’t want to impose, so I’m just going to keep voting against gay marriage.” How much respect would you have for that man? Chances are, little. He’s doing one thing and saying another. In the end, you won’t be able to trust him.
Or let’s talk another issue of life and death — let’s say, the death penalty. If you honestly believe the death penalty is wrong, and you have the power to influence whether the death penalty even exists in your state/country, wouldn’t you have the obligation to carry out your convictions and push for the end of the death penalty? Or would you just let people be executed, because you don’t want to impose your views? Or, swap in the word “slavery” for “abortion,” as many Catholics consider the go-to analogy in opposing the “personally pro-life, but…” reasoning.
I think there’s a chance Biden may see that his stance doesn’t work. Emily Stimpson of Catholic Vote says she thinks Biden may realize what he’s doing is wrong, and he may be ripe for conversion. And if that’s true, Biden might want to think about Ted Kennedy. Shortly before he died, Kennedy wrote to Pope Benedict. The letter revealed a man who needed reassurance that he was a good Catholic — reassurance Pope Benedict did not give him. Though the pope answered with a gracious letter, in response to Kennedy’s “Ted did good, right?” query, the pope said nothing, which was, in a way, a gentle answer of “yes, but no.”
UPDATE: A former colleague (not a Catholic) from my journalism days weighs in on the unresolved 1st Amendment issues on a later part of Biden’s comments (alluded to in my post but not explicitly mentioned, as that was the part the bishops had to rebut).