One moment he's wearing his Catholic faith on his sleeve, the next he's thumbing his nose at basic Catholic teaching. For Biden, faith has long served as sword and shield: "The next Republican that tells me I'm not religious," he once vowed, "I'm going to shove my rosary down their throat."
Such calculated bravado has long helped Biden to obscure the radical inconsistency between what he says and what he does, especially regarding the basic human right to life. "My position is that I am personally opposed to abortion," Biden wrote in his 2007 autobiography, "but I don't think that I have the right to impose my views on the rest of society."
Never mind that Biden has otherwise shown no such reluctance to impose his views; that his personally opposed, publicly supportive dodge applies solely to life issues; or that this intellectual and moral muddle is wholly inexplicable other than by political expediency and political partisanship.
What makes Biden unique is that he refers to his faith practically every time he opens his mouth. "The animating principle of my faith, as taught to me by church and home, was that the cardinal sin was abuse of power," Biden told the Christian Science Monitor last year. "It was not only required as a good Catholic to abhor and avoid abuse of power, but to do something to end that abuse."
But the interviewer didn't think to ask whether abuse of power applied to the most powerless of all - the unborn - now subject to a legal regime of private killing under state sanction.
This particularly fawning interview deserves to be read in full as an example of the mainstream media's uncritical support for Biden's carefully constructed personal narrative. It's an appealing myth that features a plucky Irish Catholic kid from hardscrabble Scranton, Pennsylvania who makes good against all odds, but without losing the common touch - or the faith of his fathers.
When Barack Obama announced Biden as his running mate, Biden didn't make it through the first paragraph of his speech before reminding his audience that "I was an Irish-Catholic kid from Scranton with a father who like many of yours who in tough economic times fell on hard times …." In case anyone missed the point, Obama reminded the crowd: "he's still that scrappy kid from Scranton who beat the odds; the dedicated family man and committed Catholic who knows every conductor on that Amtrak train to Wilmington …. He's that unique public servant who is at home in a bar in Cedar Rapids and the corridors of the Capitol; in the VFW hall in Concord, and at the center of an international crisis."
In case anyone still missed the point, the Boston Globe dutifully reminded everyone the next day that "as an Irish-Catholic, lunch-bucket Democrat, Biden may also help Obama appeal to a bloc of white, blue-collar voters who resisted him during the nomination fight."
It's fair to say that no other current American politician has ever gotten as much political mileage from faith and ethnicity as this quintessential "Irish-Catholic, lunch-bucket Democrat." But it's also fair to say that Joe Biden has finally run out of road.
That's the inescapable conclusion of the unfolding aftermath of Biden's disastrous Sept. 7 performance on Meet the Press. Among the immediate consequences is that Scranton's favorite son is no longer welcome to receive communion in the Diocese of Scranton, according to the Scranton Times-Tribune. Another is this unusually pointed rebuke from two Catholic prelates: "If we claim to be Catholic, then American Catholics, including public officials who describe themselves as Catholic, need to act accordingly." Still another is a similarly pointed - and equally unusual - statement issued on behalf of the entire episcopal conference of some 300 American bishops.
The upshot is that Biden's comments may well mark a turning point in the abortion debate, dividing what came before - and often went unremarked - from what's now unfolding. But it's not that Biden said anything he hadn't said before (literally ad nauseum); it's that more Americans are paying attention - and are increasingly troubled by what they're hearing, especially about Barack Obama's undeniably extremist positions on every life issue.
Recall for a moment the context for Biden's remarks, above all the deservedly unceasing controversy over Obama's extraordinarily vigorous opposition to Illinois's "Born Alive" legislation. As Mona Charen put it, "there is no other way to interpret his position on ["Born Alive"] than this: A woman who chooses an abortion is entitled to a dead child no matter what."
Then there's the in-your-face triumphalism of 2008 Democratic campaign platform: "The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right." Gone was the "safe, legal, and rare" formula that was Bill Clinton's best effort to put lipstick on the proverbial pig. For the party simply could not afford to appear more moderate than its nominee, whatever the electoral consequences.
And then there was the power of Alaska governor Sarah Palin's personal witness in deciding to bring into the world a child with Down Syndrome, bringing into sharp focus the relationship between words and deeds.
And, of course, there was Obama's characteristically flippant response ("above my pay grade") to the question of when life begins, which in turn prompted Tom Brokaw's line of questioning to Nancy Pelosi on Meet the Press on the eve of the Democratic Convention.
These were the circumstances in which Joe Biden's practiced vaudeville routine, complete with winks and nods to the NARAL crowd, finally fell flat. Given Pelosi's catastrophic performance in precisely the same venue just two weeks earlier, Biden can hardly claim to have been ambushed. In fact, he initially demurred, coyly claiming, "Actually, I haven't talked often about my faith. I seldom talk about my faith. Other people talk about my faith."
Biden thereupon picked up his ever-present shovel and started digging, no doubt prompted by that hardy Irish maxim, "I'll burn that bridge when I get to it!" In response to Tom Brokaw's two open-ended, softball questions, Biden launched into a bizarre excursus that improbably brought up the morality of fascism - that's right, fascism - and the authority of Aquinas:
"I'm prepared to accept as a matter of faith that life begins at the moment of conception. But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally or maybe even more devout than I am is inappropriate in a pluralistic society. And I know you get the push-back, 'Well, what about fascism?' Everybody, you know, you going to say fascism's all right? Fascism isn't a matter of faith. No decent religious person thinks fascism is a good idea."
Never mind that fascism, which instrumentalizes the person for the sake of the collectivity, contravenes every element of Catholic teaching, from the dignity of the person to the shape of the common good. What Biden was really doing was arguing against himself - quite unwittingly, of course - in favor of the precisely same natural moral law that condemns abortion as the direct and intentional taking of innocent life.
For both Biden and Pelosi, this argument relies on misrepresenting medical fact (when life begins) and theological truth (what the church has always taught) with irrelevant medieval speculation about "ensoulment," speculation that didn't then - and doesn't now - alter relevant church teaching that abortion is a form of infanticide. The object of this exercise is to manufacture a wholly spurious theological debate - where none has ever existed - to provide theological and political cover for a morally untenable position. Hence these confused and misleading ramblings:
Mr. Brokaw: But if you, you believe that life begins at conception, and you've also voted for abortion rights ….
Sen. Biden: No, what I voted against was curtailing the right, criminalizing abortion. I voted against telling everyone else in the country that they have to accept my religiously-based view that it's a moment of conception. There's a debate in our church, as Cardinal Egan would acknowledge, that's existed [emphasis added]. Back in Summa Theologia, when Thomas Aquinas wrote Summa Theologia, he said there was no - it didn't occur until quickening, 40 days after conception. How am I going out and tell you, if you or anyone else that you must insist upon my view that is based on a matter of faith?
This is intellectual and moral confusion of the first order, not improved by references to the Angelic Doctor. Hence this mordant observation by the same two Catholic bishops cited above: "In 2008, although NBC probably didn't intend it, Meet the Press has become a national window on the flawed moral reasoning of some Catholic public servants."
From this flawed moral reasoning, political consequences follow. A Sept. 18 Pew poll attributes to Palin's selection a 16 percent boost for John McCain among "committed Catholics" (defined as those who attend Mass at least weekly). But it's more likely that all the circumstances cited above - including Biden's and Pelosi's remarks on Meet the Press - also played some role. Among this group, McCain now leads Obama by 52 to 36 percent (versus Bush's ultimate 61 to 39 percent margin four years ago). Among all white Catholics, McCain leads by 48 to 41 percent. McCain's margin among both groups is likely to increase as his own consistently pro-life views and personal example as an adoptive parent (see here) become better known - and as Joe Biden relentlessly keeps expounding on faith and politics.
Biden's latest contribution is to cast paying taxes (never mind how much) as both a patriotic duty and a theological imperative. His argument isn't helped by his own example of negligible charitable contributions, none of which went to the support of his own local parish. It's precisely these kinds of remarks that prompted the bishops' modest appeal for greater truth in advertising: "If we claim to be Catholic, then American Catholics, including public officials who describe themselves as Catholics, need to act accordingly." In plainer and more religious terms, that means renewed commitment to personal integrity.
- John F. Cullinan,
an expert on international religious freedom, often writes about faith and politics.