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Biden, Bernardin, and today

Joe Biden is by no means the only presidential candidate or politician bending to ideological extremities of one sort or another today. But his case is of particular interest to Catholics.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner look on as Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress in Washington Sept. 24, 2015. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Given the seriousness with which the post-Watergate Washington Post takes itself, it seems unlikely that its editors strive for hilarity in devising headlines. Whatever their intention, though, they managed the not-inconsiderable feat of making me laugh out loud at breakfast on May 20, when the headline on the jump from a page-one story about former vice president Bidens current campaign read: Biden’s team says theres no need for Democrats to stampede toward the left.

Indeed, boys and girls, there is not. For judging by the positions taken by most of its two dozen presidential wannabes, the party is there already, firmly stationed in the farthermost left field bleachers of American politics. The evidence? Widespread support for infanticide, cloaked in the guise of promoting womens health.The inane Green New Deal.The historically illiterate fascination with socialism (which has never worked and never will). Medicare for all. (Have any of the ladies and gentlemen proposing this ever dealt with the Medicare bureaucracy?) Disdain for the conscience rights of medical professionals who refuse to participate in the culture of death. The fulsome embrace of transgender ideology, despite its refutation by scientific evidence. Packing the Supreme Court. Eliminating the Electoral College (and thereby dismantling American federalism). The pre-mortem beatification of James Comey. (OK, Im making that one up….but stay tuned.)

That Post headline was all the more ironic in that Mr. Biden, whose moderationis evidently not without limits, recently recanted his heresy in previously supporting the Hyde Amendment (which bans federal funding of abortion save in cases of rape, incest, and direct threat to a mothers life), telling an ACLU volunteer that the amendment cant stay.Rather a far cry, that, from the letter Biden wrote to a Delaware constituent in 1994, in which he bragged at having consistently on no fewer than 50 occasions voted against federal funding of abortion.But that was then, this is now, and the stampede is on, no matter what those Biden aides are telling gullible journalists.

 Joe Biden is by no means the only presidential candidate or politician bending to ideological extremities of one sort or another today. But his case is of particular interest to Catholics, for Biden famously wears his Catholicism on his sleeve perhaps most memorably on May 2, 2011,when he was photographed in the White House Situation Room with a rosary entwined in his fingers, while he, President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and others awaited reports on the SEAL Team Six raid that brought Osama bin Laden to justice.

Yet a year later, the same Vice President Biden was filmed dancing merrily in the aisles at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, holding up a pro-choice placard during a demonstration celebrating he legal killing of unborn children. How can this be?

It can be, in part, because of the way the consistent ethic of life,which some are trying to resurrect, has been twisted out of shape by politicians, and by partisans looking for cover for their favored candidates.

I, for one, have no doubts about the pro-life credentials of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, principal promoter of the consistent ethicin U.S. public policy debates. But decades after the Chicago prelate first proposed linking Catholic pro-life advocacy to other issues involving the defense of the dignity of the human person and, in Bernardins case, nuclear arms control, the effect of theconsistent ethicargument is clear: it has provided cover to Democratic politicians who either buy pro-choiceideology, or who fear challenging the well-financed and quite implacable pro-abortion forces in their party, by allowing these solons to suggest that theyre batting .333, or .500, or even .750 on the life issues,because of their stand on health care, or immigration, or nuclear non-proliferation.

Those are not inconsequential issues; they have serious moral dimensions; they surely involve the dignity of the human person. But they do not, and cannot, substitute for the grave moral obligation to reverse the abortion license, the lethal logic of which now extends to the infanticide of children who somehow manage to survive the procedure(according to the governor of Virginia and more than a few Democratic presidential aspirants).

Some may imagine Cardinal Bernardin applauding, or at least tolerating, Joe Bidens flip on the Hyde Amendment. To do so, however, is to dishonor the cardinals memory, while continuing to let self-seeking politicians distort the meaning of Catholicismin American public life.

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About George Weigel 419 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).


  1. I was on a USCCB Committee with Cardinal Bernardin for 3 years. I feel certain he is turning in his grave at the misuse of his earnest effort to exhort people at different places on the spectrum of human life – liberal or conservative, to see human dignity as the essential thread, with the right to life paramount and foundational.

    • Did you ever confront him about his disdain for pro-lifers – especially those praying at clinics – and how his ‘seamless argument’ gave cover to the Kennedys and Bidens of the Catholic world?

  2. Mr Weigel I am again in admiration of your talents and understanding of the issue and your willingness to speak up on it. Thank you. I’m just a local parishioner saddened by the facts as they are today, who is in full agreement with your position and want to add just one point. It is the ACCEPTED principle of the Catholic Faith in most if not all parishes now to believe in Cardinal Bernadins policy precisely because it’s easier to accuse the newly named “anti-abortion” faction of not being truly “pro-life” then to join them in their fight to save the babies and moms and dads. If the “anti-abortionists” continue to pray for and proclaim that the 3,000 a day who die from abortion are more dramatically in need of immediate protection then are those confronted by the other indeed important social issues of the day, then they don’t belong to their new “pro-life” movement.
    Throw in contraception, and you’ve lost 98% of Catholics.

    Bill A

  3. I believe that Bernardin’s “seamless garment theory” was one of the most destructive ideas to come along in a long time. As Weigel alluded to in the article. it gave “cover” to every Catholic that wanted to continue to vote democratic even after they became the party of abortion. I know of a Catholic that went searching for another parish because she got tired of her priest talking about abortion so much. She wanted to hear about other social issues. What she and so many others don’t realize is that the right to life is the predominant right of everyone. Only after someone is born can you discuss all other social “rights.”

  4. It seems to be a grave mistake to excuse the progressive agenda of Cardinal Bernadin. It was, and still is, a powerful influence within the Church.

  5. I have been grieved for years of Card.Bernardin ” Seamless Garment “as a nurse we have priority to treat life threatening first, if an abortion is not life threatening, I don’t know what is. Crdl Bernading most be turning in his grave, by his awful mistake, but then I wonder if it was a mistake, as he was involved in Campaign for Human Development that helped men like Saul Alinski.

  6. All one has to know about Cardinal Bernstein is in his behaviour and cover up of the on going murder of priests, falling from ladders indoors, in his diocese. These individuals were trying to expose the Chicago Boys’ Club and attempts were made on Malachi Martin’s life as he knew too much about the homosexual/paedophile ring operating in the diocese. Even the detectives investigating the murders were appalled by Bernardin’s excessive control of the cases. The Roman Catholic church is putrid and rotten.

  7. In 1998 the USCCB put a needed twist in the “seamless garment”, but unless I missed something (quite possible), the terse language of the final sentence of the following selection got lost from later versions…

    “Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing and health care. We pray that Catholics will be advocates for the weak and the marginalized in all these areas. But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 23).”

  8. The Gospels, Scripture (all of it, not just the parts I like), the Sacraments, the example of the (yes, imperfect) saints, what the Church proclaims. Not progressivism, conservatism, socialism, capitalism, libertarianism, materialism, or any of the other isms that seek our fealty. I need to remind myself of this every day or I’ll succumb to one of the false “voices” that promise adulation, relevancy, human respect/praise, authority.

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