The proverb says that the human being is the only animal that falls into the same trap twice. This old adage was confirmed in spades this past Sunday as Senator Joe Biden strolled onto the set of Meet the Press and repeated the horrendous gaffes made by his colleague Nancy Pelosi on the very same set just two weeks earlier. As Yogi Berra would have said, it was déjà vu, all over again.
In case you happen to be the only stranger in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard these things, I will quickly bring you up to speed. On August 23, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked about abortion rights on Meet the Press with Tom Brokaw. Regarding when human life begins, Pelosi answered “We don’t know. The point is, is that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose… I don’t think anybody can tell you when life begins.” These remarks, coupled with Pelosi’s hazy wanderings into historical debates regarding abortion, set off a maelstrom of criticism, and provoked stern statements from no fewer than ten bishops, who confirmed in unison the Catholic pro-life position and the untenability of Pelosi’s statements.
One would have thought that after this embarrassing display the Democratic party would hesitate to crawl out on the same dead branch only to have it sawed off again. After all, elsewhere pols are scrambling to win the “Catholic vote,” which now represents nearly 25 percent of the voting public. Yet fast forward just two weeks. Now it is September 7 and Senator Joe Biden is sitting in Pelosi’s chair with Tom Brokaw, fielding the exact same question. Biden responds that it is his “religiously based view” that human life begins at the moment of conception, yet for him to “impose that judgment on everyone else” would seem “inappropriate in a pluralistic society.” He then attempts to make the fascinating distinction between voting “for abortion rights” and voting “against curtailing the right,” which no doubt left many viewers scratching their heads.
As expected, Church leaders lost no time issuing a statement repudiating Biden’s comments. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput and Bishop James Conley noted that “modern biology knows exactly when human life begins: at the moment of conception. Religion has nothing to do with it.” The bishops further observed that Biden’s argument that Catholics can’t “impose” their religiously based views on the rest of the country is “morally exhausted,” since “all law involves the imposition of some people’s convictions on everyone else.” More episcopal statements are sure to follow, which will further underscore the distance between Catholic pro-choice politicians and their Church.
Now I’ve been racking my brains trying to figure out why Senator Biden would expose himself to such rebuke. Why would an intelligent man with years of experience set himself up for the same drubbing that Speaker Pelosi received just two weeks earlier? Forgive me for pointing out the lighter side to this, but the whole affair reminded me of a rerun of an episode of the Three Stooges, where Moe, Larry, and Curly all repeat the same pratfall to the delight of their adolescent audience. The irony is that what we used to call slapstick comedy now passes for politics.
I have come up with only four possible reasons that Sen. Biden or his advisers would have thought this was somehow a good idea, assuming that they did think about it before accepting the invitation.
1. Perhaps Biden thought that the bishops had spent their arsenal on Nancy Pelosi and moreover wouldn’t dare respond to a vice-presidential candidate, for fear of seeming political.
This reasoning might have had some grounding twenty years ago. But the U.S. bishops’ conference today is marked by unity and growing courage to speak out on moral issues. The 2001 sex-abuse crisis seems to have had the opposite effect to what most people expected on the American episcopate. It has left them with a clearer sense of purpose and mission, and a greater commitment to stand up for moral truth.
2. Perhaps Biden thought that his “religiously based” argument for abortion is so superior to Nancy Pelosi’s that his rhetorical slam-dunk would force the bishops into a silent recognition of their defeat in the debate.
Hmmm, this one is tougher to imagine, but still possible. If the historical argument didn’t work, how about the “I’m not going to impose my religiously informed moral beliefs on the population” argument? In the Denver bishops’ well-chosen term, this argument is “morally exhausted.” Our beliefs regarding the evil of theft, adultery, rape, and murder are all “religiously informed,” but they are also matters of basic human rights that demand civil legislation. Abortion is no different.
Moreover, when we advance religiously grounded moral viewpoints in the public square, we are not im-posing; we are pro-posing. That’s what we do in a democratic republic: We propose, we deliberate, and we vote. Oddly, many Catholic politicians understand this well when it concerns the death penalty, but are strangely reticent when it comes to protecting innocent unborn human life.
3. Perhaps Biden thought that the bishops would indeed respond, but that their statements would fall on deaf ears, and maybe even win him some sympathy votes.
There is something to this. A certain percentage of Catholics are deaf to the teaching of the hierarchy and prefer to carry on a 1960s-style “faithful dissent,” which basically comes down to a knee-jerk rejection against any exercise of ecclesiastical teaching authority. But the percentage of the Catholic rebel crowd has been shrinking year after year, especially throughout the 27-year pontificate of Pope John Paul II, and younger generations of Catholics are notably more receptive to the teachings of their Church than their immediate forbears.
4. Perhaps Biden thought that as long as he can make abortion sound like a “Catholic issue,” he will win the favor of non-Catholics, and even of many Catholics eager to be more “American” and less Catholic.
This is undoubtedly true. It has long been a tactic of the pro-choice lobby to make abortion sound like a Catholic niche issue, off the moral radar of more enlightened secular Americans. Yet on life issues, an alliance has been building for years among Catholics, Evangelicals, Muslims, and believers of many other faiths, who regard all human life to be sacred. A majority of Americans today, both secular and religious, and women more than men, favor stricter regulations on abortion than those currently in force.
Am I missing something here? Was there any other reason why Sen. Biden should have thrown down the abortion gauntlet in this way, just before an election?
Joe Biden has rightly stated that abortion is a hugely divisive issue in our country. In fact it is surely the second-most divisive issue we have ever faced, right behind slavery. But as in the case of slavery, pushing abortion under the rug will not make the problem go away. The argument for pluralism just doesn’t hold water when speaking of fundamental human rights.
It is fascinating to read over texts circulated in the middle of the 19th century in defense of the practice of slavery. When we look back at how revered politicians, intellectuals, and churchmen could seriously defend a practice that now seems so patently barbaric, we cannot help feeling a twinge of moral superiority. Yet their arguments bear an uncanny resemblance to those now used to defend abortion, almost as if pro-choicers had been using these tracts as fodder for their own rhetoric. From Nancy Pelosi’s “historical argument” (“Slavery was practiced in the greatest civilizations”) to Joe Biden’s “personally opposed” argument (“No one is forcing you to own slaves, just to respect those who do”), all the way to the feminists’ “woman has a right to her own body” argument (“Slaves have been bought and paid for and no one has the right to touch another’s property”) to Obama’s “We don’t know when life begins” argument (“We’re not sure whether black people have souls”), it is truly déjà vu all over again.
The more serious problem for Joe Biden at this point is not the loss of his credibility as a Catholic, but as a person of conscience. When you say on national television that you agree with your Church that abortion is murder, but that you intend to support legislation that keeps abortion fully available, you leave voters wondering why you would support a right to what you consider to be murder.
How many other convictions of conscience is Biden prepared to sell out on if they happen to conflict with those of his major donors or the prevailing political winds? And if he could commit a diplomatic blunder like this during his campaign, what would he be capable of in office?
– Father Thomas D. Williams, LC, ThD is Vatican analyst for CBS News and author of Knowing Right From Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience (Hachette, 2008).