Joe Biden, who once colorfully exclaimed, “The next Republican that tells me I’m not religious, I’m going to shove my rosary beads down their throat,” is now one of the most prominent Catholic politicians in the world. Certainly, among America’s political hierarchy, he surpasses Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as the country’s highest-ranking Catholic politician. That the nation now has a Catholic vice president leaves pro-life Catholics disturbed rather than jubilant. Biden is poised to assist in President Barack Obama’s promised radicalization of American abortion policy.
It is true that Biden as a senator has on occasion voted to place limits on abortion. He supported a ban on partial- birth abortion, which earned him his worst NARAL Pro-Choice America ranking—36 percent in 2003. Biden also joined a unanimous US Senate in supporting the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, mandating medical care for babies who survive abortion procedures— an identical version of which Barack Obama three times blocked or voted against when he was in the Illinois legislature. Biden also angered the abortion lobby by supporting the Hyde Amendment, which seeks to ban the subsidization of abortions with American tax dollars.
But at the same time Biden has voted in favor of allowing abortions at taxpayer- funded military hospitals, in favor of abortion at taxpayer-funded Indian healthcare service facilities, in favor of taxpayer-funded international groups that promote or perform abortions overseas, and, according to National Right to Life, has not actually voted against taxpayer funding of abortion since July 1999.
His record got worse over time. In 2007, NARAL Pro-Choice America assigned Senator Biden a 75 percent prochoice rating based on his votes in the US Senate, and gave him a 100 percent rating during the previous three years. NARAL president Nancy Keenan has celebrated Biden for his “strong record”in opposing judicial nominees with “hostile, anti-choice records.” She added that Biden “has played a leading role” in blocking nominees “not committed to extending Roe v. Wade,” and has even “boasted about that.”
Almost from the moment he was picked as Obama’s running mate, Biden found himself in trouble with the bishops over the abortion issue. Bishop Joseph F. Martino of Scranton, Pennsylvania—Joe Biden’s diocese as a youngster—held fi rm to his previous statements when asked if Biden could receive communion in the Scranton diocese. Without naming Biden by name, Martino said categorically, “No Catholic politician who supports the culture of death should approach Holy Communion. I will be truly vigilant on this point.” Martino reaffi rmed his September 2005 pastoral letter, where he wrote, “I will not tolerate any politician who claims to be a faithful Catholic who is not genuinely pro-life.”
Likewise, Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput told the Associated Press that Biden ought to refrain from presenting himself for Holy Communion, given his record of support for abortion. “I certainly presume his good will and integrity and I presume that his integrity will lead him to refrain from presenting himself for Communion if he supports a false ‘right’ to abortion,” Chaput said.
Biden’s previous bishop in his current hometown, Michael Saltarelli of the Diocese of Wilmington, also weighed in. “No one today would accept this statement from any public servant: ‘I am personally opposed to human slavery and racism but will not impose my personal conviction in the legislative arena.’ Likewise, none of us should accept this statement from any public servant: ‘I am personally opposed to abortion but will not impose my personal conviction in the legislative arena.’” Saltarelli asked that politicians like Biden have the “integrity” to “respect the Eucharist.”
Biden compounded his problem with the bishops after appearing on Meet the Press with Tom Brokaw on September 7, 2008. Brokaw asked Biden the same question he had asked Nancy Pelosi previously, though with a wrinkle related to Biden’s running mate: “If Senator Obama comes to you and says, ‘When does life begin? Help me out here, Joe,’ as a Roman Catholic, what would you to say to him?”
“I’d say, ‘Look, I know when it begins for me,’” Biden forcefully replied. “‘It’s a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I am prepared to accept the teachings of my Church.” Biden said that while he personally believes that life begins “at the moment of conception,” there are other people of other faiths with different defi nitions. Thus, said Biden, “For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society.”
Several bishops swiftly noted in response to Biden’s comments that it is a biological fact, not sectarian claim, that life begins at conception. Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the US Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Bishop William E. Lori, chairman of the US Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, issued a statement saying that Biden’s remarks do “not reflect Catholic teaching” nor “the truth of the matter.”
The implications of the most critical component in Brokaw’s question to Biden—how Joe Biden, the veteran senator, might counsel Barack Obama, the rookie senator, if Obama asked for guidance on this human-life question—also troubled Catholics. Biden could play an enormously destructive role in guiding the next president into what might be called the “personally opposed but” Cuomo Doctrine, thereby misleading another generation of Catholics.
It is striking that Biden, by his own admission, believes that life begins at conception, yet favors the right to exterminate that life, whether by scientists dissecting human embryos in a lab or would-be mothers procuring abortions as a means of birth control. In one sense, Biden’s position is worse than Obama’s position, since Obama professes not to know when life begins. While Obama claims blissful ignorance, Biden says that he knows in his mind and heart life begins at conception, but then supports laws that allow for the deliberate exploitation and extermination of that life.
On the issue of embryonic research, Biden made statements during the campaign that went well beyond the incorrect to the offensive. Not long after his comments to Brokaw, Biden criticized Sarah Palin, the Republican Party’s vice-presidential nominee (who gave birth to a baby with Down syndrome) for alleged hypocrisy in opposing embryonic research—research, Biden assumed, that would help babies with Down syndrome. Referring to public officials like Sarah Palin who support children with “a development disability” or children “born with a birth defect,” Biden said: “Well, guess what, folks? If you care about it, why don’t you support stem-cell research?”
Biden dismissed Palin’s firm pro-life convictions, which he dubbed “obviously a backward step for women.”
The political-moral maelstrom of the campaign prompted many highprofile Catholics to request meetings with Biden. Pro-life Catholics foresaw electoral disaster, and wanted to talk to the Delaware senator quickly in order to prevent any more outrageous statements or promises. Biden’s newly installed bishop in Delaware, W. Francis Malooly, publicly stated that he would like to talk with the senator to help him “understand how crucial the sanctity of human life is to a just society.”
Likewise, Carl Anderson of the Knights of Columbus requested a chat. The Knights already had been running ads telling Biden, “You now have a unique responsibility when you make public statements about Catholic teaching.” These ads urged the senator to make “correct” statements. Most remarkably, the entirety of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops requested a “discussion” with both Biden and Barack Obama.
These requests went nowhere. And then came the Obama-Biden victory on November 4. A week later, at the USCCB fall conference in Baltimore, the issues of the campaign boiled over and exploded, as the threat of the Freedom of Choice Act was now very real—thanks to the votes of 54 percent of America’s self-professed Catholics.
Bishop Martino of Scranton spoke of “canonical measures” such as excommunication for Biden: “We have to have something like that. I cannot have the vice president-elect coming to Scranton saying he learned his values there, when his values, at least in the area of abortion, are utterly against the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
But while bishops like Martino were drawing a line, the new bishop in Biden’s current hometown was sending other signals. Once Biden was elected, Bishop Malooly began echoing the logic of Nancy Pelosi’s bishop, George Niederauer.
Malooly told the Associated Press that he will not ask Biden to withdraw from receiving the Eucharist. He said he would rather try and change Biden’s position on abortion. “I won’t politicize the Eucharist,” said Malooly. “I don’t want to alienate people. I want to change their hearts and minds.”
In December, when challenged on this question, Malooly reaffirmed his answer: “My own conscience tells me I have a better chance of helping someone if I don’t alienate [that person].”
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