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Michael Sean WintersAugust 23, 2008

Picking a Catholic to be your running mate can be a dicey proposition these days. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius is in a public fight with her bishop who has banned her from receiving communion because she vetoed a bill restricting abortion providers. Conversely, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine’s moderately pro-life stance would have rankled many on the left. Joe Biden shares Sebelius’s pro-choice credentials without the prospect of a fight with his bishop, and like Kaine, he has woven his faith into the very fabric of his political biography.

Joe Biden began his political career as a pro-life Democrat but like many other Catholic Democrats, including Ted Kennedy and Ed Muskie, he flipped after Roe v. Wade. "Well, I was 29 years old when I came to the US Senate, and I have learned a lot," Biden said, explaining his switch. "Look, I’m a practicing Catholic, and it is the biggest dilemma for me in terms of comporting my religious and cultural views with my political responsibility." This ambivalence is reflected in his 36% rating from NARAL and his support for a ban on partial birth abortions. Still, during his long tenure as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to Roe, enough to earn him the criticism of pro-life Catholic groups.

Unlike some pro-choice Catholics who have gotten into trouble with their bishops, Biden does not even have a bishop right now. Wilmington’s new bishop, W. Francis Malooly, will be installed September 8th. Malooly, a native of Baltimore, rose in the ranks under the tutelage of two moderate bishops, Archbishop William Borders and Cardinal William Keeler, neither of whom joined their more conservative confreres in the effort to deny communion to pro-choice politicians. Malooly has never run his own show, as he is about to do in Wilmington, but it is doubtful he will provoke a confrontation with Biden given his mentors, both of whom are living and able to offer counsel.

Biden is more comfortable than most politicians in talking about how his Catholicism has affected his life and his views. In his campaign book last year, Biden wrote, "My idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion. It’s not so much the Bible, the beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, or the prayers I learned. It’s the culture." This shows a nicely nuanced understanding of how religion mediates its political views through the culture, and gives faith a more foundational role in his worldview, one not reduced to mere personal ethics. Biden says his Catholicism taught him that "abuse of power" is the cardinal sin of politics, and that such an abuse of power was precisely what caused him to fight violence against women at home and the Serb genocide in Bosnia. He gave a fascinating interview to the Christian Science Monitor on the role of his faith in his life and in his politics last year. Too often, religion is seen by politicians as an add-on, a box to check, right after "beautiful wife" and before "Harvard Law," but Biden seems to have genuinely allowed his faith to leaven his politics.

It is doubtful Biden was chosen because of his Catholicism. And it is also doubtful that his Catholicism lends his surrogacy greater weight. But, insofar as his Catholicism has endowed him with a belief in the necessity of solidarity, compassion, and human dignity in our politics, Biden embodies a more nuanced, complicated view of how religion and politics can mix within one candidate. And recognizing such complicatedness is a good thing for both Church and State.

Michael Sean Winters



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15 years 7 months ago
It's possible that Mr. Biden is Catholic, but Mr. Winters is giving in to some typical hypocritical jesuitry when he confuses a personal view (pro-abortion) with the Church view (pro-life). I certainly hope he will be excommunicated by Abp. Burke, who has said that NO cath. politico can ever suppport abortion and simulatenously take communion.
15 years 7 months ago
In the link provided concerning Senator Biden's voting record on life issues, he is quoted as saying the following in response to a questions about whether he believes human life begins at conception: "I am prepared to accept my church's view. I think it's a tough one. I have to accept that on faith." At least he didn't make the type of evasive remark Senator Obama made about such a question being "above his pay grade." Still, I find a huge disconnect in Senator Biden's half-hearted "I am prepared to accept my church's view," and his voting record on many life issues, such as his Yes vote to expand research to more embryonic stem cell lines, his No vote on attaching criminal sanctions to the harm done to an unborn fetus during the commission of another crime, and, last but not least, his No vote on banning human cloning. He may have but a 37% approval rating from NARAL, but his voting record on life issues indicates, to me at least, that he is someone who minutely calibrates the political winds in an attempt to dodge criticism from both the left and the right.
15 years 7 months ago
rollo, Michael Winters isn't a Jesuit, and Archbishop Burke is neither Biden's bishop, nor the head of the CDF, nor the pope. It's not his place to excommunicate the senator, nor are his views concerning the reception of Holy Communion particularly relevant, as he now has no diocese in which to enforce them. Meanwhile, I have yet to see Pope Benedict deny (or say he will deny) Holy Communion to anyone. Clearly, he seems to be following the example left by John Paul II, who apparently had no problem at all offering Holy Communion to the very openly pro-choice Francesco Rutelli, among others. I'd be interested to know why it is you've chosen to ignore the practice of the popes for that of Archbishop Burke. Have you done serious study of the canons in question and concluded that Burke's exegesis is accurate, or do you simply like what he says because it sounds "orthodox"? Burke isn't the only canonist in the American hierarchy. Cardinals Egan and Maida are experts in canon law as well. Why do you believe that Archbishop Burke's interpretation is more accurate than there's? What flaws have you found in their method of canonical interpretation as opposed to Burke's? Jeri, I could see how you can argue that a fully developed fetus is a baby, but are you also saying that a blatocyst is a baby? If yes, then might I ask, what makes a blatocyst a baby? It has no bones, no nerves, no skin, no blood vessels and it is incapable of pain or movement. Again, what makes it a baby? If you do believe that a distinction exists between a blatocyst and a baby, then it would seem your issue is with late term abortions, not early ones. Incidentally, Senator Biden isn't a fan of late term abortions himself.
15 years 7 months ago
According to NARAL's website, Senator Biden has a 60% pro-choice approval rating from the organization for 2007, not 36% as your post states. I think that your figure comes from 2003. http://www.prochoiceamerica.org/choice-action-center/in-congress/congressional-record-on-choice/delaware.html Further, it appears as though in years past Biden has enjoyed even more favorable ratings from NARAL, including 100% ratings in several years. http://www.votesmart.org/issue_rating_category.php?can_id=53279 In fairness, it seems that, although by no means consistent with the Church's teaching on this issue, Senator Biden is less extreme than his running mate on the matter of abortion. http://www.nrlc.org/ObamaBAIPA/ObamavBiden.html What this will mean with respect to the election will be interesting to follow.
15 years 7 months ago
If a mother and doctor killing an innocent baby isn't abuse of power, frankly I do not know what is. Violence against women--terrible. Violence against a baby--no problem. He needs to go back to Catholicism 101.
15 years 7 months ago
Hopefully Joes Biden reads America and will pass along Fr. Kavanaugh's recent column.
15 years 7 months ago
Nicely written Michael. It is Joe Biden's wisdom and his ability to define, articulate and often find humor, in the nuances we all must deal with within our political and social culture -- that will make him a valuable addition to the Obama ticket. We need more leaders that can strike a balance between their personal faith and the larger needs of society. As a former Hillary supporter, I cannot be more pleased that Obama picked Biden as a running mate. I'd have voted for Joe for President if I had had the opportunity. Last thought -- looking forward to reading your new book! Congratulations!

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