By Fr. George Welzbacher
September 14, 2008
First: a fantasy. Let's imagine that it's 1942. A member of Hitler's Reichstag (Germany's parliament) is explaining to his bishop how he, a government official amd a self-declared Catholic, is able to support some of the Fuehrer's policies. "Needless to say, I'm personally opposed to killing Gypsies and Jews. My faith tells me that it's wrong. But how can I impose my own personal views, shaped by just one out of several religious traditions, upon the entire community?"
Let's zoom forward to September 7th, 2008. A member of the U.S. Senate and a candidate for the Vice-Presidency of the United States, a self-declared Catholic, is explaining to Tom Brokaw on NBC's Meet the Press how he has been able to reconcile his decades-long support for abortion with his Catholic faith. Here is a transcript of the relevant exchange between Mr. Brokaw and Senator Joseph Biden, the senior Senator from DelawareThis is not a fantasy.
* * * * *EXCERPT:
MR. BROKAW: Your're a lifetime communicant in the Catholic Church. You've talked often about your faith and the strength of your feelings about your faith.
SEN. BIDEN: Actually, I haven't talked often about my faith. I seldom talk about my faith. Other people talk about my faith.
MR. BROKAW: I'll give you an opportunity to talk about it now.
SEN. BIDEN: Yeah.
MR. BROKAW: Two weeks ago I interviewed Nancy Pelosi-she's the Speaker of the House, obviously-when she was in Denver. When Barack Obama appeared before Rick Waren, he was asked a simple question: When does life begin? And he said at that time that it was above his pay grade. That was the essence of his question. When I asked the speaker what advice she would give him about when life began, she said the church has struggled with this issue for a long time, especially in the last 50 years or so. Her archbishop and others across the country had a very strong refutation to her views on all this; I guess the strongest probably came from Edward Cardinal Egan, who's the Archbishop of New York. He said, "Anyone who dares to defend that they [unborn babies] may be legitimately killed because another human being 'chooses' to do so or for any other equally ridiculous reason should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name." Those are very strong words. If Senator Obama comes to you and says, "When does life begin? Help me out here, Joe," as a Roman Catholic, what would you say to him?
SEN. BIDEN: I'd say, "Look, I know when it begins for me." It's a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I'm prepared to accept the teachings of my church. But let me tell you. There are an awful lot of people of great confessional faiths-Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others-who have a different view. They believe in God as strongly as I do. They're intensely as religious as I am religious. They believe in their faith and they believe in human life, and they have differing views as to when life-I'm prepared as a matter of faith to accept 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 and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me 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 offaith. No decent religious person thinks fascism is a good idea.
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 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 is a debate in our church, as Cardinal Egan would acknowledge, that's existed.
Back in "Summa Theologia," when Thomas Aquinas wrote "Summa Theologia," [Summa Theologiae" is the correct title] 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? And that's the reason I haven't. But then again, I also don't support a lot of other things. I don't support public, public funding. I don't, because that flips the burden. That's then telling me I have to accept a different view. This is a matter between a person's God, however they believe in God, their doctor and themselves in what is always a-and what we're going to be spending our time doing is making sure that we reduce considerably the amount of abortions that take place by providing the care, the assistance and the encouragement for people to be able to carry to term and to raise their children. [End of transcript]
* * * * *
Many of America's bishops have emphasized in recent public pronouncements the fundamental truth that the Catholic Church's condemnation of the killing of unborn babies is NOT just the idiosyncratic ruling of a particular religious confession (such as the law of the Church mandating attendance at Mass on Sundays or, under the old discipline, a discipline still vigorously to be recommended, mandating abstention from meat on Fridays). The killing of unborn children is a violation not so much of positive Church law as of that eternal law that is based on the very nature and the consequent dignity of each and every human being as a human being. Murder violates that law, the law that has been recognized down through the ages as the natural law.
* * * * *On the day after Senator Biden's appearance on Meet the Press the archbishop of Denver, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, seconded by auxiliary bishop James D. Conley, issued the following statement, reproduced here without abridgement. It states what needs to be stated and does so with admirable clarity.
* * * * *Public Servants and Moral Reasoning:
A Notice to the Catholic Community in Northern Colorado
By Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Monday, Sept. 8, 2008
To Catholics of the Archdiocese of Denver:
When Catholics serve on the national stage, their actions and words impact the faith of Catholics around the country. As a result, they open themselves to legitimate scrutiny by local Catholics and local bishops on matters of Catholic belief. In 2008, although NBC probably didn't so intend it, Meet the Press has become a national window on the flawed moral reasoning of some Catholic public servants.
On August 24, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, describing herself as an ardent, practicing Catholic, misrepresented the overwhelming body of Catholic teaching against abortion to the show's nationwide audience, while defending her "pro-choice" abortion views. On September 7, Senator Joseph Biden compounded the problem to the same Meet the Press audience.
Senator Biden is a man of distinguished public service. That doesn't excuse poor logic or bad facts. Asked when life begins, Senator Biden said that, "It's a personal and private issue. " But in reality, modern biology knows exactly when human life begins: at the moment of conception. Religion has nothing to do with it. People might argue when human "personhood" begins-though that leads public policy in very dangerous directions--but no one can any longer claim that the beginning of life is a matter of religious opinion.
Senator Biden also confused the nature of pluralism. Real pluralism thrives on healthy, non- violent disagreement; it requires an environment where people of conviction will struggle respectfully but vigorously to advance their beliefs. In his interview, the senator observed that other people with strong religious views disagree with the Catholic approach to abortion. It's certainly true that we need to acknowledge the views of other people and compromise whenever possible-but not at the expense of a developing child's right to life. Abortion is a foundational issue; it is not an issue like housing policy or the price of foreign oil. It always involves the intentional killing of an innocent life, and it is always grievously wrong. If, as Senator Biden said, "I'm prepared as a matter of faith [emphasis added] to accept that life begins at the moment of conception," then he is not merely wrong about the science of new life; he also fails to defend the innocent life he knows is already there.
As the Senator said in his interview, he has opposed public funding for abortions. To his great credit, he also backed a successful ban on partial-birth abortions. But his strong support for the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade and thefalse "right" to abortion it enshrines, can't be excused by any serious Catholic. Support for Roe and the "right to choose" an abortion simply masks what abortion is, and what abortion does. Roe is bad law. As long as it stands, it prevents returning the abortion issue to the states where it belongs, so that the American people can decide its future through fair debate and legislation.
In his Meet the Press interview, Senator Biden used a morally exhausted argument that American Catholics have been hearing for 40 years: i.e., that Catholics can't "impose" their religiously based views on the rest of the country. But resistance to abortion is a matter of human rights, not of religious opinion. And the senator knows very well as a lawmaker that all law involves the imposition of some people's convictions on everyone else. That is the nature of the law. American Catholics have allowed themselves to be bullied into accepting the destruction of more than a million developing unborn children a year. Other people have imposed their "Pro-choice" beliefs on American society without any remorse for decades.
If we claim to be Catholic, then American Catholics, including public officials who describe themselves as Catholic, need to act accordingly. We need to put an end to Roe and the industry of permissive abortion it enables. Otherwise all of us - from senators and members of Congress, to Catholic laypeople in the pews - fail not only as believers and disciples, but also as citizens.
+Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Denver
+James D. Conley
Auxiliary Bishop of Denver