“Beyond the Wafer Watch”
Some thoughts on the broader issues raised by Joe Biden’s Comments
on the Beginning
© by the author, 2008, all rights reserved
“I would say that as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition. And Senator–St. Augustine said at three months. We don’t know. The point is, is that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose.” – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Meet the Press, Sunday, Aug. 24th, 2008
“I'm prepared to accept the teachings of my Church… 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.” – Sen. Joseph Biden on Meet the Press, Sun., Sept. 7th, 2008
The recent statements of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca), and Senator Joseph Biden (D- De), have occasioned ample discussion in Catholic spheres regarding a series of issues, most importantly: the role of the Church in forming the political positions – i.e. policy and lawmaking – of public figures who profess Catholic Faith; the question whether Catholics may support candidates and office-holders whose positions are discordant with the Church’s teaching on fundamental issues of the nature of human life and the constitution of society, and if so to what extent and under what circumstances they may with right conscience give such support; whether the Church may welcome politicians to the sacrament of her communion, who not only advocate policy and support laws basically destructive of human life, personality and social soundness, but knowingly and willfully misrepresent Church teaching in defense and supposed justification of their positions. The Catholic bishops of the United States, corporately and individually, have led the way in clarifying the Church’s teaching on the dignity of human life and the nature of her communion. In this, the bishops are to be lauded, and it is the hope of all Catholics that they continue to provide such resolute leadership.
The aforementioned issues, however, are largely internal to the Catholic membership of our political society. They are, if you will, ad intra discussions. They are issues internal to a group, the membership of which runs into the tens of millions, and so that group’s discussion of them is rightly carried out in the presence and under the scrutiny of the larger public. Senator Biden’s recent comments on Meet the Press, however, raise a number of broad questions that the House Speaker’s comments did not. The Speaker’s statements only grossly misrepresented Catholic teaching on abortion, while Senator Biden explicitly and unequivocally subscribed personally to the teaching of the Church regarding the precise moment at which human life begins. In so clearly expressing himself, Senator Biden has brought his profound personal convictions into the public square, and invited the critical attention of the general public.
First and foremost, the Senator’s statements invite us to engage in a consideration of their consistency. He says he accepts the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding the beginning of human life. Since the Catholic Church teaches that human life begins at the moment of conception, it follows that Senator Biden believes that a newly conceived embryo is a human being. From this, it follows by rigid logical necessity that Senator Biden believes every procured abortion to be the destruction of a human life. Now, unless Senator Biden is prepared to say that there are circumstances in which a newly conceived embryo is fully culpable for a capital crime, he must be convinced that every procured abortion is, as a matter of rigid logical necessity, the taking of an innocent life.
Stated simply, Senator Biden is logically constrained to admit that he believes the law of our country protects the willful taking of innocent human life, and this is a position to which no reasonable person may responsibly consent, for the willful taking of innocent human life is murder.
Senator Biden has a rejoinder, which he happened to offer during the course of his Meet the Press interview. He said, “For me to impose [my] judgment on everyone else…is inappropriate in a pluralistic society.” Here, Senator Biden misrepresents, perhaps because he does not understand, the nature of pluralistic society, or at least, its American incarnation. American law has no power to turn facts into opinions, and the best angels of American culture have no desire to. The beginning of human life is a matter of fact: either it begins at conception, or it does not. If human life begins at conception, then procured abortion is the destruction of human life, and conscientious legislators could not reasonably permit it. If abortion does not begin at conception, legislators would still be duty-bound to make laws providing the greatest possible protection of human life, and so could reasonably, as an act of prudence, ban all procured abortion. The individual citizen’s opinion in the matter is therefore entirely irrelevant, unless the citizen happens to be a legislator, and if he is a legislator, then he is beholden to the people for the faithful conduct of his office, an office of government, the purpose of which is the protection inviolate of innocent life, the first unalienable right, written into human nature. If the reader is not convinced, let him substitute himself for the unborn, and consider whether he still thinks it just for the law to allow the whim of another to have power over his life.
There are, further, at least two ways of understanding pluralism as it regards the relation of religion and the public sphere. In some countries, like mainland, Communist China, the fundamental law protects the freedom of private belief on paper, while arrogating to the state the full power of regulating religious practice, under the rubric of protection of normal religious activity (pursuant to the same article, #33, Catholics’ prayers for the Pope in the Roman Canon – a prayer that a priest recites to consecrate the Eucharist – may be considered criminal). Under such a regime, being a Catholic in full communion with the See of Peter is itself a crime. Under such a regime, religious practice is severely curtailed, and literally millions of citizens are excluded from participation in the life of the body politic. In the United States of America, no one may be excluded from public life solely because of one’s religious faith or practice. Indeed, as George Washington wrote in his Farewell Address, “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Americans have always expected, indeed required of their elected representatives, not that they abjure their convictions as a condition of faithfully executing their offices, but that they cling to them, that they be guided by them, and that they stand ever ready to submit the conduct of their offices to the trial and judgment of their constituents on election day.
The point may be illustrated by supposing for a moment, and the sake of argument, that the beginning of human life is a matter open to opinion. Senator Biden, after more than three decades in public life, seems not yet to have learned that the legislative art is precisely and entirely involved in building consensus around opinable questions, and then binding the people to the expression of that consensus in law. This is what lawmakers do when they establish speed limits, impose restrictions on the purchase and consumption of alcoholic beverages or the use of fireworks, when they mandate rates of taxation and appropriate public funds for a numberless host of projects, programs and initiatives.
Once again, the American measure of the people’s approbation of her elected officials is taken at the polling station. We do not elect leaders, we do not choose representatives, whose ability and willingness to act according to the dictates of conscience appears doubtful to us, for we have always understood that our elected officials are not entrusted with control of the machinery of government, that they might merely be the executors of our whimsy; we choose them out of a consideration of their aptness to protect our interests, chief among which is justice, the security of which in no small part depends on the judgment of the persons charged with its discovery, establishment, maintenance and execution. Senator Biden’s readiness to abandon his conscientious judgment, and on a matter of no less importance than that of the protection of what he believes to be innocent life, is a fact that all voters must closely consider as they determine their choice of a chief magistrate.
The words of another great American serve to bring these last two points more fully into view. Like Senator Biden, Al Smith was a Catholic who sought high executive office. Addressing the question of his faith and its role in forming his understanding of his duty as a public official in the May, 1927 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, Smith wrote, “[I]n the wildest dreams of your imagination you cannot conjure up a possible conflict between religious principle and political duty in the United States, except on the unthinkable hypothesis, that some law were to be passed which violated the common morality of all God-fearing men. And if you can conjure up such a conflict, how would a Protestant resolve it? Obviously by the dictates of his conscience. That is exactly what a Catholic would do.” One may well object that there was not then, nor is there now, a “common morality of all God-fearing men” really present in the foundation of our public life. While that may be the case, it is certainly the case that, until recently, there was a common conviction according to which the health of the republic to a large degree would depend upon the presence of such a foundation, so that where such a foundation is entirely or largely lacking, the basis of ordered liberty in free society is lacking, as well. Publius made the point and developed it in Federalist #55, when he said, “Republican government presupposes the existence of these [good] qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us, faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”
Senator Biden also urges that his conviction is a religious conviction, a conviction of faith. If this is to have any weight whatsoever in the present discussion, the Senator’s religious conviction, his conviction of faith, must be outside the realm of reason. Some Christians do believe that faith ordinarily comes in and through a kind of direct divine communication more immediate and simple than human reason can possibly grasp or penetrate. This is not, however, what the Catholic Church teaches regarding the transmission of faith: the larger intellectual tradition in which the Church participates, and of which Catholics believe their Church to be the most perfect bearer, is one in which the end of reason is intellection; faith only completes and perfects the movement of reason toward its end in the mind of God. If the Senator does believe his conviction of faith to be entirely un-tethered from his rational faculty, then voters will not be quick to vote for a ticket on which he appears, for he will have based his deepest personal convictions, not on the truths available to human reason by means of Catholic faith, but on a series of lunatic propositions that are mere simulacra of those truths. Senator Biden, however, is at pains to express his readiness to accept his Church’s position on the matter, and his Church holds that the truths she proclaims are eminently reasonable, even though some of them may not be known by reason, alone. In any case, her teaching on the beginning of human life and the inherent evil of procured abortion is not only reasonable, but entirely knowable by reason alone. In other words, in order to know that life begins at conception and that procured abortion is always gravely immoral, one need not have the Catholic faith. One need have only the ability to think. This understanding is amply laid out and explained at the beginning of §3 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, most succinctly in #1954:
The natural law expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie.
The U.S. Catholic bishops have enlarged at great length on the subject, most recently in their 2006 document on faithful citizenship. Senator Biden’s apparent confusion in this matter calls for clarification from him. The sad fact is that many Catholics do not know their faith adequately. No one knows it completely, and all of us, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, can and should learn more about it. If Senator Biden does not know this about the teachings of the Church to which he has belonged his entire life, then the real extent to which the teachings of the senator’s Church inform his convictions must be a question for the senator himself. This is not at all to cast aspersions on senator Biden’s sincerity. The senator’s apparent lack of self-knowledge, however, might reasonably give him and voters pause.
In his 1763 Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Laws, John Adams wrote, “[Citizens] have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers. Rulers are no more than attorneys, agents, and trustees, for the people; and if the cause, the interest and trust, is insidiously betrayed, or wantonly trifled away, the people have a right to revoke the authority that they themselves have deputed, and to constitute abler and better agents, attorneys, and trustees.” Unless senator Biden addresses the inconsistencies and clarifies the ambiguities herein raised, he runs the risk of wantonly trifling away at least the trust of his fellow Americans.
Chris Altieri is preparing the defense of his Ph.D. dissertation, The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy.