From First Things:
This just in: It turns out that the problem with America’s Catholic bishops is that they’re not Protestants.
Or so we can reasonably surmise from Amy Sullivan’s recent Time/CNN commentary on the plight of Catholic Democrats, titled “Does [Sen. Joseph] Biden have a Catholic problem?” Raised a Baptist, Sullivan is now a Time magazine senior editor and author of The Party Faithful: How and Why the Democrats Are Closing the God Gap (Scribner). She suggested in her September 13 column that, this year, Sen. Biden faces the same rough treatment Catholic Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry allegedly got in 2004 because of his support for abortion rights. The ringleader of the Catholic doctrine posse, in Sullivan’s view, is Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, one of “a handful of the most extreme bishops” who had “targeted Kerry in 2004 but [had] become marginalized in the bishops’ conference—losing key leadership elections–in part because of his extreme views about denying Communion to politicians.”
Sullivan went on to suggest that Chaput is using a double standard in the 2008 election by criticizing Catholic supporters of Barack Obama, while turning a blind eye to John McCain’s support for embryonic stem cell research.
More on that in a moment. First, some background.
On September 7, in a display of bad logic, bad theology, and bad science rivaled only by Catholic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi two weeks earlier on the same show, Sen. Biden told an NBC Meet the Press audience that the question of when life begins is a personal and private issue. Then he said he accepted “on faith” that life begins at conception. But then he said that he supported a woman’s right to choose to terminate that unborn life anyway.
In other words, yes, the Delaware senator agreed that an unborn baby is alive, but he also said, in effect, that it’s acceptable for someone else to choose to kill it. Then, while ignoring the hard biological evidence that life begins at conception and that religious opinion has nothing to do with it, Sen. Biden incoherently referenced Thomas Aquinas to shore up his argument.
Nobody tricked or forced him into saying these muddled things. They just popped out of his mouth naturally. In fact, this divorce of private belief from public action isn’t new to American Catholic politicians. It’s been going on for decades. John F. Kennedy created the model. Mario Cuomo sanctified it in his famous 1984 remarks at Notre Dame.
What made Biden’s latest version of this same old melody so provocative, though, was this: He was running for national office and speaking to a national audience. As a practicing, self-described Catholic, he was defending an abortion policy gravely incompatible with Catholic faith. And he was talking—inadvertently but directly—to Catholic viewers in every local diocese in the country. That’s called scandal; in other words, the act of leading others into error or sin. And this time, unlike in the past, some local bishops, including representatives of the national bishops’ conference, had had enough. More than a dozen publicly challenged and corrected him.
Back when Americans still knew history, most Catholics had a sense of what the Reformation was about. Most knew that Protestant and Catholic ideas about the nature of the “Church” can differ sharply, and why. For Catholics, faith is not simply an individual experience. It’s also communitarian; the community of faith we call “the Church,” like a family, is organized by a variety of tasks and a hierarchy of responsibility.
Being Catholic demands more than tribal loyalty or nostalgic memories. It’s not a matter of sentiment. It’s a matter of creed and behavior, here and now. The problem that bishops have with a Catholic official like John Kerry or Rudy Giuliani or Joseph Biden or Nancy Pelosi is not his or her personal sincerity or professional skill. These are above question. The problem comes when these public leaders freelance what they claim Catholics can believe and do, while also claiming to be really Catholic.
For Catholics, individual conscience is sacred. But it doesn’t have absolute sovereignty over reality, and it doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Conscience must be formed by the truth, which we learn through the counsel and teaching of the Church. If Catholics reject what the Church teaches on a serious matter, they break unity with the community of believers. And if they break that unity and then present themselves for Communion anyway, they act dishonestly. They violate their own integrity and—even more importantly—they abuse the rights and the faith of other Catholics. Bishops have a serious duty to correct that.
Coming from a Baptist tradition with a less robust sense of Church, Sullivan might be forgiven for confusing this. But she does have an obligation to notice that Catholics are something more than Protestants who go to Mass.
Which brings us back to that seeming ringleader of the doctrine posse, Archbishop Charles Chaput. The archbishop stands accused of the “extreme” view that public leaders who claim to be Catholic should actually behave that way on important issues. It’s a bit like the similarly extreme view that people who claim to be married should act accordingly; otherwise, they’re lying.
Sullivan suggests that Archbishop Chaput has played hardball with Catholics for Barack Obama while giving Catholics for McCain a free pass. McCain, as mentioned earlier, has backed embryonic stem cell research in the past. But the actual transcript of the Chaput remarks in the Religious News Service interview she references in her column does not support her view that the archbishop switched gears and avoided holding McCain accountable on the stem cell issue. In fact, the archbishop has voiced his criticism of embryonic stem cell research directly to Sen. McCain. He’s had no similar invitation or opportunity to meet with Sen. Obama. Moreover, the Republican Party platform rejects embryonic stem cell research. In fact, anyone interested in the contrasts between the two party platforms on this and related life issues simply needs to compare them.
My comments here should not be misrepresented as supporting one political party over the other. As the U.S. bishops, including the archbishop of Denver, have said many times, both major political parties have many good Catholics as members, both have important strengths, and neither fully represents a Catholic approach to public policy. Catholics need to decide for themselves how to vote this November. Articulate Catholic arguments have been made for both Barack Obama and John McCain. But the challenges facing Catholics for Obama and Catholics for McCain are very different in content when selling their candidates to a Catholic public.
One final note. Every Catholic bishop has the task to pastor and encourage the faithful entrusted to him, to advance the Gospel and to correct error. In that light, Sen. Joseph Biden and like-minded Catholic politicians have nobody to blame but themselves for any problem they face during this campaign with local bishops. And for the record, the archbishop of Denver has never threatened any public official with the denial of Communion—including Sen. John Kerry.
In the future, Ms. Sullivan should get her facts straight. If she wants to know what Denver’s archbishop really thinks, and not what she thinks he thinks, she can start by reading Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (Doubleday). She might learn something. That’s why he wrote it.
Francis X. Maier, the father of four, is chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver and special assistant to Archbishop Charles Chaput.