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The bishops, Donatism, and President Biden

The Catholic rejection to abortion is not a distinctively “Catholic belief” and the bishops have never suggested that it is.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks about the economy from the White House in Washington July 19, 2021. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

In an article first posted at Commonweal and republished on July 7 in La Croix International, Professor John Thiel of Fairfield University, while criticizing the U.S. bishops’ decision to prepare a teaching document on Eucharistic coherence and integrity in the Church, performed the not-inconsiderable feat of striking out four times (swinging).

The first whiff: “In the judgment of the bishops, Biden’s sin seems to be that, as a Catholic politician, he has not taken a public, political stand against abortion.” Wrong. What the bishops (and Catholics serious about human rights) object to is that the Biden Administration is bending every effort to increase the incidence of abortions at home and abroad. Moreover, the administration, by eliminating from its recent budget request the Hyde Amendment and its prohibition of using tax dollars for abortion “services,” is threatening to implicate conscientious-driven pro-life Americans in its misguided policies.

The objection here is not to a missing statement — “The President isn’t taking the right public stand” — but to specific actions: Led by President Biden, the Administration is promoting and facilitating a grave moral evil — the killing of innocents.

The second whiff: “Biden has stated many times that he considers abortion to be a moral evil. This is his Catholic belief. But…he finds that his personal belief conflicts with the beliefs of other citizens and with the law in a democracy….”  Wrong. The Catholic rejection of to abortion is not a distinctively “Catholic belief” and the bishops have never suggested that it is. Rather, the bishops have consistently argued that it’s a matter of elementary biology (the product of human conception is a human being and nothing other than a human being) and an elementary principle of justice (innocent life deserves legal protection law in a just society).

You don’t have to believe in the Triune God, the Incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary or her Assumption to grasp why the abortion license is an evil that should not be permitted in law. Catholic belief in the power of grace (not to mention in the particular and final judgments) may give public officials the courage to withstand political pressure and support a culture of life that offers women in crisis pregnancies something better than abortion. But there is no uniquely Catholic belief-ticket to the pro-life position, which is science-based and rational.

The third whiff: “The bishops seem to see the Church as the Donatists did…[as] a Church characterized by a purity that cannot abide the sinful pollution of Biden’s political behavior.”  Wrong. While it’s true that the Donatists in mid-first-millennium North Africa believed in a Church of the pure and that their view was rejected by orthodox Catholic teachers like St. Augustine, the key issue in the Donatist controversy was the efficacy of the sacraments, not the purity of the Church. The Donatists demanded that Catholics who had apostacized by various acts of idolatry be re-baptized; Augustine correctly argued that post-baptismal sin, however grave, did not alter the efficacy of baptism, which was a matter of divine grace, not human action.

No one is suggesting that President Biden (or Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or Senator Dick Durbin, or any number of pro-“choice” legislators of both parties) be rebaptized. But the hard fact is that, by actively facilitating a grave moral evil, these men and women have put themselves in a defective state of communion with the Church, such that their own integrity requires that they not present themselves for holy communion — an act that, among other things, suggests that one is in full communion with the Church.

The fourth whiff: “The Church is not a gathering place for the saved but a refuge for sinners…Augustine insisted that…the sacraments possessed a supernatural power that brought sinners to salvation…” The Church is indeed that, and the sacraments indeed have that power. But a brief reflection on Peter’s denials during the Lord’s passion suggests that sinners are saved when they acknowledge their sin. We have all heard the cock crow, more than once. No one urging Catholic public officials to recognize the evil in which they’re involved when they facilitate abortion imagines himself or herself without sin. The bishops don’t, I don’t, and it’s absurd to suggest that any of us do.

We do care for the spiritual welfare of our fellow-Catholics caught in the grip of Big Abortion, its propaganda and its campaign contributions. As fellow-sinners touched by grace, we pray for their deeper conversion to the truth. And we applaud the bishops who call for that conversion by all appropriate means.

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About George Weigel 478 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), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. These Progressives (i.e. secular, atheistic, irrational) types are far too often inconsistent when it comes to the praxis of their politics. When it’s the matter of abortion, Biden and his fellow Dems side with the ‘my body, my choice’ crowd. But when it comes to vaccines, it’s an entirely different matter. Whatever happened to CHOICE, Mr. Ice Cream Man?

  2. Whif One: The new politics (and theology!) of mixed-messaging, still saying one thing but doing another.

    Whif Two: Abrogating the universality of natural law—“The Church is no way the author or the arbiter of this [“moral”] norm” (St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, VS n. 95).

    Whif Three: Responding to Donatism, the Church enlisted the help of the empire to curb physical terrorism (knives, murder, arson) against society itself, while today reversible-suit Biden wields the power of the state to mandate and enforce Big Abortion.

    Whif Four: The Church without the whole Christ, who is “the voice of the truth about good and evil” (VS n. 117)—as in Eucharistic coherence…

  3. Good article, but I repeat a previous plea – use the phrase pro-abortion, not pro-choice. That they are not pro-choice is proven by the fact that any time a state passes a law that requires a woman to get real information before an abortion, the pro-abortionists fight it in court tooth and nail.
    We are pro-life. They are pro-abortion.

  4. “By actively facilitating a grave moral evil, these men and women have put themselves in a defective state of communion with the Church, such that THEIR OWN INTEGRITY (Emphasis mine) requires that they not present themselves for holy communion – an act that, among other things, suggest that one is in full communion with the Church.”

    Well said – these people will eventually run out of wiggle room – it is inevitable, to which I fear that their response will be along the lines of the great Jimmy Durante – WHAT elephant??

    • Agreed.

      And I find it increasingly amazing that both Mr. Weigel and Nancy D’Alesandro, daughter of Mayor D’Alesandro, grew up at the same time in the city of Ballamer, Md. in the 1950s, proving beyond a doubt that God does have a sense of humor.

  5. Of course the Church is the gathering place of the saved – the goats do not enter Heaven but hell because they are outside the Church and Salvation, thus without the garment of the Saved, Jesus says ‘they are tossed by the Holy Angels outside into the damned in darkness, wailing and grinding of teeth’… Baptism is the entrance into, and gathering of, the saved or the Church, the Saved/Living members of the Household of God…

    Love does not lie or deceive, which is what such tickling demonisms do….Love Rejoices in the Truth, God the Holy Spirits witnesses, the author seems to know not but to be blind and deaf, have eyes and ears that see nor hear not…Lord, convert each, making us Your greatest Saints!!

  6. Weigel pitching first pitch curveball, the batter thinking as a Leftist sees the issue as a Leftist, whereas the issue is to the right a matter of promoting evil. Second pitch fast ball, batter Thiel again the bushleaguer Lefty eyeballs the issue as political, pitcher Weigel instead right down the middle with Justice, a fast ball. Third pitch a screwball. John Thiel by now befuddled expects another ball in the strike zone, instead a fluttering zig zagging God knows where Donatist argument that leaves the reader himself a baseball fan somewhat of a theologian wondering where did baptism enter all this if modern Donatism is more, “This Donatist tendency — to close ranks and return defensively to first principles — can be seen today whenever a movement faces a crisis. Modern-day Donatists emerge after every Republican defeat: conservatives who think the main task is to purge and purify. There are modern-day Donatists in humanities departments, who pull in as they lose relevance on campus” (David Brooks NYT). There is at least a nuance of truth in this David Brooks assessment. Weigel points to grave sin, although unexpectedly the current issue of Eucharistic coherence omitted. This is an impasse for the refs to call, so they call the pitch a ball. And now the fourth pitch. Weigel winds for the pitch, Thiel tightens his grip on the bat, swings and misses. A Church for sinners is not a Church for unrepentant reprobates rather for the repentant. There you are Professor John Thiel. A sinker! You’re Out! Back to the bushleagues.

  7. ‘ My Body , My Choice ‘ – to do the Holy Will of The Father , to help convert every lying and prideful thought , to one of love , with the price of a wound of thorn ..’
    words similar to above are in The Passion meditations ..and Lord has always promised much, for our willingness to face what sins costs , to be grateful for The Price .. to restore the nobility and dignity to our lives that alone can bring true peace .. – Lord also promises conversion of hearts and protection for places where the readings are done ..

    and the reverse too thus to be acknowledged ..the natural calamities , wars , poverty , many such calamities with deep roots to the enemy kingdoms

    ‘ Virtue with right knowledge makes one worthy to hold authority ‘ – from the above
    as well as how those who do things in an unholy manner become hardened of hearts and blinded to the truth , leading others in same paths ..

    The gentle tone of the Pres. has been a welcome change , after the shrill and arrogant voice and gestures .. yet , the ‘mystery of evil’ – as to how one named after St.Joseph refuses to be a terror of demons , by trying all out , to say with the child , as well as the parents , since it is the evil fearful lies of the enemy that sets the trap of fear and despair all around –
    ‘ It is my body , my choice ‘ – to live in His Will and with His Love , for a Life called to requite The Love with which The Father created the family a life of holiness , in praise and gratitude and one such life capable of undoing much evil , taking in ever more the ‘right knowledge ‘ of the depth of The Love .

    Same might be the remedy for much of the other confusions of our times , ? as the birthing pains that The Father allows .

  8. Politics is destroying the Catholic Church. Never ever did Christ tell his followers to go to Rome and write a bunch of manmade laws to change the world. The tool that Christ gave mankind to change the world is the Church. If we want to end abortions we must fill our churches. If we want to end gun violence we must fill our churches. If we want to end racism we must fill our churches. If we want to strengthen our families we must fill our churches. If we want to end stealing we must fill our churches. If we want to end greed we must fill our churches. If we want to end climate change we must fill our churches. We already have manmade laws making it illegal to kill, steal and hate—–how are those working for us? The top priority for Catholic leaders is to fill our churches.

  9. The problem with Biden is obvious. The President could have always REFUSED TO SIGN any law passed by congress based on his own analysis. He could announce this decision on TV and social media, taking a stand for life whenever possible. That would not make it a “catholic” decision , but a human one. For example early abortion proponents argued for abortion to be “safe but rare” arguing saving the loves of women from back alley abortionists. In this they won many, even many Catholic, allies. Now however we are at the point of the left nodding smugly that an “abortion” can now include a conversation about the further treatment of a BABY which has SURVIVED a botched late term abortion!!! It is this disgusting level of amoral self-congratulation and myopia to reality that makes Biden so weak and offensive. All this worsened by his parading ( as do a number of Democrats) as a “devout” catholic. A real Catholic might feel politically compelled to ok a “safe and rare” option, and yet eschew late term abortions totally, like the neglect killing of a live human baby. Further, rather than make his decisions quietly, he loses no opportunity to pander to ill informed and badly catechised Catholic voters. In this he gives public scandal. For which any Bishop with a SPINE would have a private talk with him, and suggest he no longer present himself for communion.

  10. “The Church is not a gathering place for the saved but a refuge for sinners…”

    Mr. Weigel can demolish Professor Thiel’s ‘arguments’ quite without any help from this quarter. And yet the above quote from the professor’s article leads to a certain response. Indeed, the Church offers a refuge for sinners — but are they not expected to make an honest effort to acknowledge and forswear that sin? Or do they pollute that refuge with a false repentance and simply carry on as before?

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