President Biden and a Catholic inflection point

George Weigel

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:27-28).

Catholics who take this apostolic teaching seriously will understand that our first obligation toward our brother in Christ, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., is to be in Christian solidarity with him through prayer. We pray for his health, strength, and courage. We pray that he be granted the gift Solomon asked of God: wisdom in governance. We pray for his deepening conversion to Christ. Solidarity in prayer is the first duty of American Catholics toward the new president today. That is bedrock Catholicism.   

There is no doubt, however, that the inauguration of President Biden, the second baptized Catholic to attain the presidency of the United States, creates an inflection point for Catholicism in America, as we strive to be a communion of disciples in mission.  

Were he to follow through on campaign promises to bring the Little Sisters of the Poor to heel over the provision of contraceptives, some of them abortifacients, to their employees; were he to support federal funding of abortion, at home and internationally through U.S. foreign aid; were his administration to promote the practices of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide; if, through his Department of Health and Human Services, he were to hollow out religious freedom by repealing the federal regulations that now protect the conscience rights of Catholic doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers – then Mr. Biden would have demonstrated, as president, that he is not in full communion with the Catholic Church, because he would have deliberately facilitated what the Gospel and the Church teach are grave moral evils and injustices. 

In 2020, the Catholic conversation in the United States was distorted by the high-decibel screeching of apocalyptic conspiracy theorists, on the one hand, and by dissembling about the unique gravity of the life issues and potential threats to religious freedom, on the other. Clarity about the complementary ways in which Catholics in different stations of life exercise responsibility for the moral and political health of the Republic was difficult to achieve. Perhaps, though, it is not too late to understand our respective responsibilities and their interaction.  

I agree with those who argued last year that the primary responsibility for effective Catholic witness in public life rests with lay Catholics. Lay Catholics are to be salt and light in society, including politics. Lay Catholics have a baptismal responsibility to be missionary disciples, whether as citizens meeting their civic obligations or as public officials. No Catholic gets a pass on responsible citizenship.  

Moreover, no Catholic public official can, with integrity, claim that Gospel truths about the right to life and religious freedom are irrelevant to his or her vote, or to his or her executive action. The responsibilities conferred by baptism and the moral truths we know by reason cannot be checked at the door of the city council chamber, the mayor’s office, the state legislature, the Congress, the governor’s mansion, or the White House. 

The bishops, for their part, bear a unique responsibility before Christ the Lord for the sacramental integrity of the Church. That episcopal duty is not an internal ecclesiastical matter only; defaults in exercising it have serious public impacts. For if the U.S. bishops fail to maintain what the Latin American bishops in 2007 (including the man who would become pope in 2013) called the “eucharistic coherence” of the Church, the message is inevitably conveyed into the public space that the Church is not really serious about the gravity of certain contested issues of public policy. And that makes the work of the laity in public debate, electoral politics, and governance much more difficult.

It gives me no pleasure to note that such signals of unseriousness have been sent too often in recent decades: as when bishops failed to ensure “eucharistic coherence” by making it clear – privately if possible, publicly if necessary – that Catholic public officials who actively facilitate grave evils should not present themselves for holy communion. That default has serious effects on the spiritual well-being of Catholic officeholders. It also impedes lay efforts to promote the culture of life, and thus the health of the Republic, through legislation and legal action.

Lay responsibility for Catholic witness in public life and episcopal responsibility for the Church’s eucharistic integrity bear heavily on each other. Bishops and lay Catholics face this inflection point together.

Featured image: Vice President Joe Biden takes the oath of office at the 56th Presidential Inauguration, Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009 (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.