Joe Biden has been in public life for a very long time, so many of us are by now quite familiar with the “darkness” in his life—a darkness he recently called to mind in his address at the virtual Al Smith Dinner.
How did he cope? His answer was direct: “My Catholic faith has helped me through the darkness.”
Biden doesn’t agree with the U.S. bishops about everything, but he does care about what they say and regularly tries to fit their concerns into Democratic policy proposals. Biden apparently served as a behind-the-scenes liaison between the bishops and the Obama administration during the debate over the Affordable Care Act.
But the Democratic party has become very hostile to many of the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church. What, then, are Catholics to think about the incoming administration?
Biden has long served as dealmaker and bridge between rival factions—even to the point where he’s criticized as a spineless politician for not standing on principle. While there is merit to this critique, it also suggests the new administration may seek to accommodate rather than bulldoze. Perhaps Biden’s newly-created office dedicated to reaching out to conservatives should at least be something worth paying attention to.
If there is to be any outreach, then the Biden administration will need to address the greatest problem with today’s Democratic party. And that is abortion.
In the white-hot debate over abortion in Argentina, their (male) health minister—a supporter of their (male) president’s new bill to legalize abortion in that country—said that it couldn’t possibly be the case, as his pro-life opponents claim, that there are “two lives” to support and love. In defense of his view, the health minister said something revealing: “There’s clearly a single person and the other [thing] is a phenomenon. If it were not like that, we would be facing the greatest universal genocide, [because] more than half the civilized world allows it.”
Pope Francis agrees with this line of reasoning, though he draws the opposite conclusion. He sent a public letter of support to pro-life women in Argentina that asked, “Is it fair to eliminate a human life to solve a problem? Is it fair to hire a hitman to solve a problem?” The pope, whom Biden describes as having been “very generous” to him and his family, rightly thinks of abortion as the worst violence imaginable against the most vulnerable human beings imaginable and on a scale that is almost unimaginable.
No one supports a consistent life ethic more strongly than I do. But in advocating for the full vision of St. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, it does not follow that we must give all issues equal weight. On the contrary, like Cardinal Bernardin himself, we must give higher weight to issues that are particularly grave in our present circumstances. The U.S. bishops, though they rightly have many priorities, are quite right to claim that abortion must remain the “preeminent priority.” How could “the greatest universal genocide” be anything else?
Joe Biden used to be something close to a pro-life Democrat, but he has dramatically changed his views in recent years, especially in the lead-up to the 2020 campaign. If his administration shifts the so-called Mexico City Policy so that U.S. tax dollars fund abortions overseas, as he has promised to do, Biden will become more directly complicit in abortion than at perhaps any other time in his life. He has also reversed himself on the Hyde Amendment, which means he is in favor of forcing pro-life citizens to pay for abortions with their tax dollars.
On the chance that the Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Biden has pledged to make these cases “the law of the land” by enshrining them into federal law. This would impose the extreme abortion policies handed down by unelected judges in 1973 and 1992. If Biden makes good on this campaign pledge, he will ensure that the U.S. remains one of the most abortion-permissive countries in the world.
To any Catholic supporter of fundamental human dignity and equality, this is appalling. How could there be reasons for hope with an incoming president who refuses to increase protections for prenatal children, and instead promises to make them even more vulnerable to the ongoing genocide?
Biden’s past gives some grounds for thinking we can forestall the worst aspects of the Democratic party’s abortion absolutism. While serving as vice president, he raised eyebrows back in 2015 when in an interview with Fr. Matt Malone, SJ he said he believed, as a Catholic, that “abortion is always wrong.”
Biden has supported Hyde and even late-term abortion bans in the past. He has said he believes there should be room in the Democratic party for pro-lifers. In the past he has supported conscience protections.
Is there any hope we can get that guy back? Given what is at stake for millions of prenatal lives—as well as their mothers (who are often coerced into abortions they don’t want)—Catholics have no choice: We must engage Biden after his inauguration.
Biden is a political animal. For the last two years he’s read the political tea leaves, which have led him to embrace pro-abortion extremism in order to win the Democratic party’s nomination. However, once inaugurated, the political incentives for presidents always change. Perhaps he has been annoyed by the pressure he’s received from extremist abortion groups. Once in office, he may be willing to take a justice-centered position more in line with his core beliefs. It is our job to pressure him to do exactly that.
One approach is to argue for a grand bargain (and a more modest bargain) that would put the U.S. on a path more like Europe's. This would entail much lower thresholds for legal abortion and much higher levels of support for pregnant women and families. The combination of socially conservative and economically progressive policies fits well with Catholic teaching. And it would save hundreds of thousands of prenatal lives by reducing both supply and demand for abortion
As president, Biden will face a changing political landscape. Trump’s ability to gain the support of working-class voters, including blacks and Hispanics, many of whom are religious and socially conservative, suggests the emergence of a new political coalition. Many have called for the GOP to fill this new political space. But this coalition fits much better with the heart and history of President-elect Biden than it does with, say, Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Catholics committed to the fullness of the teaching of the Church have an opportunity. We can encourage Biden to return to his pro-life roots, pointing out the moral urgency of the pro-life cause and highlighting the political payoff of bringing working-class voters who care about social issues back into the Democratic fold. Too much is at stake to do otherwise.
Charles C. Camosy isassociate professor of theology at Fordham University and author of Too Expensive to Treat?—Finitude, Tragedy, and the Neonatal ICU.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Our year-end campaign is underway. Please show your support today!
Click here to subscribe to First Things.