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When Joe Biden was sworn in as America’s 46th president, he laid his hand on an ancient Douay-Rheims family Bible, a translation made by Catholics in France, where they’d taken refuge from the Reformation across the Channel. In doing so, the new president reminded some 40 million viewers of a truth he may now prefer to forget: namely, that the Catholic Church is inherently political, and faith in her teachings is never a merely private matter.
For decades, American Catholic politicians insisted the opposite was the case. For generations of Democrats, especially, the faith meant dated jokes about stern nuns and sentimentality about Notre Dame football. Catholicism was a cultural institution, quaint but lovable, like a bowling league. The Roman church, in this view, required little of its members, certainly not serious adherence to her moral precepts — about the sanctity of unborn human life, for example.
This was always an untenable position — a fact that became undeniable last week, when a routine meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops made national headlines. Secular and religious media alike reported that American prelates were on the verge of drawing up a document that would formally prevent Biden and other pro-abortion-rights politicians from receiving Holy Communion.
Predictably, the reports occasioned a ponderous open letter from 60 nominally Catholic Democrats objecting to what they described as the “weaponization” of the sacrament by a coterie of sinister right-wing bishops.
The letter did draw attention to an elephant in the room, but that elephant wasn’t the GOP. It was the church’s unchangeable teaching, which demands fidelity without exception from members, regardless of their station in life.
Simply put, the Catholic Church doesn’t permit its members in public office to hold fast to one set of beliefs in private, only to turn around and govern according to a different set of beliefs.
In the old days of “safe, rare and legal,” when Catholic liberals treated abortion as an unfortunate social reality they could do very little to extricate, it was just about possible to imagine such a compromise. Indeed, until 2020, Biden himself was at least nominally opposed to abortion: Throughout his long Senate career, he supported the Hyde Amendment and the so-called Mexico City agreement, which prohibited federal funding for abortion within the in the United States and abroad, respectively. For no doubt mysterious reasons, he changed his mind last year.
Which brings us back to the US bishops and the proposed document that has been the subject of so much fear-mongering. It’s true that Biden and other Catholic supporters of abortion are barred from receiving Communion, but not because of a new document that will almost certainly restate what already appears in the Code of Canon Law.
Biden could have learned as much by opening his old Bible to the plain words of Saint Paul: “Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord.”
Attending Mass, confessing one’s sins and receiving Communion aren’t acts that take place in a vacuum. The Catholic Church makes public demands. Liberal Catholic politicos surely recognize this when they glad-hand with the bishops on convenient occasions or when trying to justify their positions on certain issues with reference to Catholic social teaching. But when it comes to abortion and other questions where their positions are incompatible with Catholic orthodoxy, they start insisting that they can’t allow a lot of mystical notions, such as the prohibition against killing unborn children, to interfere with their political careers.
Next month, on July 9, the church celebrates the feast of Saint Thomas More, who was martyred after refusing to accept Henry VIII’s claim that the crown was the final arbiter of religious authority in England. Saint Thomas knew that this wasn’t true and that public acquiescence, however politically expedient, would be a grave sin. Biden and his Catholic allies would do well to look to his example.
As it is, their conduct is rather more reminiscent of a certain Roman governor in ancient Judea who washed his hands and soothed his conscience, asking, “What is truth?”
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine.
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