When Joe Biden officiated at a same-sex wedding recently, he was not only doing what politicians do best—indulging in a bit of faux-courageous populism that really cost him nothing and entailed no risk—he was also thumbing his nose at his own Church.
The scenario was sadly predictable. The list of Roman Catholic politicians who publicly oppose by their words and actions the official teachings of their Church is a long one. Protestants probably fare no better. But it may be that, due to our denominational fragmentation and lack of public profile, we Protestants are better able to hide our lies under a bushel.
Given the two major parties’ nominees for the presidency, we can assume that the future of religious liberty as we have known it in America is not a bright one. Religious liberty would not fare well under the one administration, and it might indeed bid farewell under the other. The time has come for us to make plans for the future. I have made it clear before that I believe Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option seems to build on the most realistic premise: that we must despair of national politics delivering anything for us and refocus on the local. This, as Dreher has pointed out again and again, will require withdrawal from certain spheres.
But I suggest that it will mean more than simple withdrawal. It will also require the drawing of certain lines and thereby the exclusion of certain people from church circles. We cannot bring clarity to the identity and testimony of the church unless we draw some pretty clear boundaries about who belongs and which beliefs and behaviors are legitimate. If nothing you say or do can merit your removal from the Church, then the Church really has no distinct identity and ultimately no distinct mission.
Biden and his ilk need to be excluded. Period. If you are advocating abortion or presiding at a same-sex wedding, then your behavior places you outside the bounds of the Christian faith and should be treated accordingly—for your own good, for the reputation of the church, and for the reputation of Christ. That might seem hard and unloving in our emotivist world, but I see nothing loving in not stating the obvious in such situations. In word and deed, Catholics like Biden demean the teachings of their Church. Why should they be offended when someone points that out and then acts accordingly?
I am not a Roman Catholic, let alone a canon lawyer, but I am reliably informed that the bishop of the diocese to which such a politician belongs does have certain powers in this regard. Also, any bishop may write privately to such a politician and indicate that he should consider absenting himself from Mass in the diocese. That is a fairly mild course of action, but discipline has to start somewhere. If every Roman Catholic bishop in the country wrote such a letter to every Roman Catholic politician who made a mockery of Church teaching, the effect would be predictably stunning. The scorn and hatred poured down on the hierarchy would be awesome to behold. Christians would be reviled by the media from dawn till dusk. But a terrible beauty would be born, because it would become absolutely clear that the Church stands for something other than the spirit of the age.
As of this moment, the leadership of all of our churches in the U.S. leaves much to be desired. Mainline Protestant denominations sold out to the world two generations ago. Evangelicalism is full of vibrant enthusiasm but lacks any intellectual depth or consistency when it comes to social teaching. Confessional Protestants are such a small minority that we are barely noticeable. Key to the religious future of the United States is the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It alone has the status and the potential cohesion to make a difference. All of our hopes depend upon the Roman Catholic Church taking a clear and bold stand.
Yet therein lies the problem. Because their Church has been historically so important, the Roman Catholic bishops now have to make what will be a costly choice between social and political respectability and faithfulness to their calling. Now is not the time for vacillation or acts of passive-aggression that name the sin but refuse to name the sinner. It is time to make a stand and trust God for the outcome. And Protestants need to realize that, in the public square, a weak Roman Catholic leadership damages us all. Whatever option we choose in the future—Benedict or otherwise—if ecclesiastical discipline remains optional, it is really all over for Christian orthodoxy.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.