When Biden meets Francis, some heads will explode
On Friday morning, when President Joe Biden has an official audience with Pope Francis, some heads will explode. For a certain type of Catholic, Biden represents a repudiation of their understanding of their own Catholic identity, and this type of Catholic tends to be less than enthusiastic about Francis! The photos of the two together will be too many.
Catholic University of America theology professor Chad Pecknold told The Associated Press that the meeting “may in fact underscore the urgent need to unite around a clear and cohesive vision of how bishops should respond to politicians who publicly disregard the teaching of the Church while standing for Holy Communion. “
What is he talking about? Pecknold ignores the difference between disagreeing about the legal applicability of a particular Church teaching in a pluralistic society and[ing] the teaching of the Church in contempt. “
Almost always, Biden is clear that he accepts the church’s teaching on abortion but doesn’t think it’s fair to legislate this teaching for the country. I think he’s wrong and his argument weak, but I’ve never seen Biden’s contempt for this or any other teaching of the church. Biden showed even less contempt for the church itself, and the church is still more than the sum total of its moral teachings.
What’s more, all sides of the abortion debate are about to discover how complicated it is to draft legislation that can withstand legal and public scrutiny. It is one thing to think abortion is wrong, but another is to develop legislation that makes it illegal. Difficult questions will arise. Competing interests and moral visions will need to be balanced. In politics, as opposed to moral theology, compromise is the currency of the kingdom, and it is the art of the possible, not the arc of justice, that rules the day.
Why, then, does Biden cause such fury? Every weekend we see a photo of the outgoing president of Holy Trinity Parish in Washington or St. Joseph’s in Brandywine Parish in Delaware. We saw him with the ash stain on his forehead every Ash Wednesday. We know he carries a rosary with him. We have heard the stories of the nuns who taught it as a boy. We know his planners are reminded that if it is a holy day of obligation, the president must find a church no matter where he goes. How many Catholics do you know who never lack a holy day of obligation?
Instead of softening any judgment of Biden, the president’s loyalty to the practice of the faith makes the pro-life professional choir hate him all the more. Bad enough when Bill Clinton, the Baptist, and Barack Obama, who attended a United Church of Christ Church in Chicago for years, supported legal abortion, but a Catholic does? It drives some of our fellow believers crazy.
Phil Lawler, on CatholicCulture.org, expressed a similar disgust when the Pope met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Less than a month ago, the Pope told reporters that ‘abortion is murder’. Now he has hailed one of the main American supporters of the practice, ”Lawler said. “His meeting with Pelosi was significantly warmer than his dark-faced meeting a few months earlier with former President Trump.”
For Lawler, the fact that Pelosi is a grandmother, that she goes to mass regularly, that she cares about many of the same things the Pope cares about, none of that matters because they differ on abortion.
Or consider George Weigel, who is all in a foam about the President taking the Eucharist. In a commentary to the Catholic World Report on whether or not to deny Holy Communion to pro-choice politicians, Weigel wrote: “The subjective moral condition of the pro-abortion politician – is this person in a state of mortal sin? – is not the crux of the matter. “
Who says? If the person is not in a state of mortal sin, why could he not receive Holy Communion? Weigel surely remembers that his hero, Holy Pope John Paul II, gave Holy Communion to pro-choice politicians.
I don’t understand how a Catholic can completely reduce their sense of Catholic identity to oppose abortion, any more than I can understand how a Catholic can reject the church’s deep teaching on the inviolability of human life and embrace the right to abortion as a kind of progressive triumph.
Biden appears to be a person in conflict, and the conflict is usually a sign of moral seriousness. Abortion fanatics, both pro and con, are those who really stand outside the Catholic moral and intellectual tradition, which recognizes complexity and is allergic to any Kantian approach to ethics.
We Catholics never fail to recognize the need to apply all moral principles to concrete circumstances with careful judgment. And we recognize that the prudential judgment is not a “get out of jail without jail” card for anyone who invokes it to outline their disagreement with church teaching.
There is another type of response to Biden’s visit to the Vatican that we should be wary of, and that is the narrative that these two men are two peas in a pod. In the Washington Post curtain-raiser, Matt Viser breathlessly wrote:
But the resonance is also personal, given the similarities between the 84-year-old Pope and the 78-year-old president, who have sort of become allies. Both achieved ultimate leadership late in life and quickly moved towards liberal leadership. They faced internal resistance. Both are treated with caution by conservative American bishops.
This reduction of the two men to perceived political similarities misses the point that one of them is not a politician and, in fact, really wants the church to stay out of politics. So in what sense are they “allies”? But Francis is not a liberal by American standards because the Catholic Church has never endorsed a concept of rights independent of a concept of responsibility that accompanies it.
The Viser article also misses the most important similarity between the two men: They have not abandoned the organizations they lead. François does not yearn for the 1950s as a golden age from which we must recover. Biden doesn’t indulge in the America-bashing so common on the left. Both men have more hope than the younger members of the ridings they lead, and they have more hope because they have more wisdom.
Francis will welcome Biden and treat him as he seems to treat almost anyone who approaches him, as a human being, with flaws and flaws as well as with gifts and dignity. The Pope does not expect a politician to deliver the eschaton and the President does not expect the Pope to solve all the puzzles that plague our political life.
I hope they will find areas of collaboration as there are urgent moral tasks that will benefit from such collaboration. I also hope they are upfront about their differences, as adults should be. In short, no one should explode their heads about this meeting, but some will. The explosion will have almost nothing to do with the reunion itself.