Joe Biden, pre-conciliar Catholic?

The image of the pre-conciliar Catholic Church in the United States as catechetically effective and politically potent can be hard to square with the long-term damage done to Catholicism’s role in American public life by that very pre-Vatican II Catholic, John F. Kennedy.

Some biographers suggest that JFK became more religiously serious after his infant son Patrick’s death in 1963. I certainly hope that was the case. For most of his life, however, Catholicism for John Fitzgerald Kennedy seems to have been less a matter of deep personal conversion than an ethnic marker – sometimes useful, sometimes troublesome, but always irradicable. Kennedy regularly performed what were then known as his “religious duties.” But their impact on his manner of life appears to have been minimal, and he had no grasp of Catholic political theory.

Speaking on Church-and-state to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association during the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy did American Catholicism a service by masterfully arraigning those who continued to indulge in that venerable American pastime, anti-Catholic bigotry: prejudices rooted in an ignorance that was amply displayed by the Protestant ministers who challenged JFK during the Houston meeting’s Q&A session. But Kennedy put the bigots in the dock by getting as much distance as possible between himself and serious Catholic thinking on school choice and religious conviction’s role in the public square, while seeming to acknowledge the possibility of a pope trying to boss around a Catholic president – which was about as likely in 1960 as the Vatican launching a manned mission to the moon. 

(The “Catholic issue” of that election cycle did produce one great line. Before the 1960 primaries, Harry Truman didn’t evince much confidence in Jack Kennedy, whom he dismissed as “the boy.” But Truman, who occasionally showed residues of anti-Catholic sentiment, also admitted that “It’s not the Pope I’m afraid of, it’s the pop” – meaning Joseph P. Kennedy, whose enthusiasm for Joe McCarthy, coupled with his dismal record as the appeasement-minded U.S. ambassador the Great Britain during the early days of World War II, stuck in Truman’s craw.) 

John F. Kennedy, it is typically said, made Catholics “acceptable” as players at the highest levels of American politics. And, yes, his intelligence, wit, and grace confounded the image of U.S. Catholics as something less than the A-team, socially and culturally. But the price of acceptability was high. For the Houston speech and Kennedy’s electoral success set the stage for several generations of Catholic politicians to treat Catholic teaching on the life issues as sectarian oddities rather than as what they are: convictions based on rational grounds accessible to all. That ongoing misrepresentation, which also involves a surrender to the very un-Catholic idea of freedom as mere willfulness, now touches other matters, including the legal definition of marriage and the agenda being pressed, against all scientific evidence, by the “Trans” movement. 

I’ve thought of the Kennedy Effect a lot since Joe Biden became the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee in early spring. Mr. Biden’s testimony to the power of his Catholic faith in helping him bear personal tragedy is, I believe, heartfelt; one can’t imagine cool, rational JFK speaking in those terms about how he dealt with sorrow. Is Joe Biden’s Catholicism really that much different than JFK’s, though? 

Aspects of Mr. Biden’s Catholic self-presentation put me in mind of some of the folkways of pre-Vatican II tribal Catholicism. He sometimes treats the rosary as a charm or talisman – famously wrapped around his fingers in the White House Situation Room while the SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound (which Biden opposed) was underway. “The nuns” Biden cites are campaign props, not unlike the religious sisters in JFK’s joshing answer to a reporter’s question about inflated numbers at his 1960 rallies: “Plucky [press secretary Pierre Salinger] counts the nuns and then multiplies them by 100.” Jack Kennedy dealt with Cardinals Cushing and Spellman as power-brokers; Joe Biden seems to regard high-ranking clergy the same way, not as men with whom he might seriously discuss the moral dimension of public policy – perhaps even to the point of being challenged by them. As for Vatican II, well: Mr. Biden’s positions on contraception, abortion, and the nature of marriage reflect a sad ignorance of, or indifference to, the Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. 

Joe Biden is no Traditional Latin Mass guy, to be sure. In other respects – not least his repeated threat to shove his rosary beads down critics’ throats – his Catholicism is reminiscent of The Last Hurrah: which is to say, something quite pre-Vatican II.

Featured image by Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.