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: Christian Agitation and the Equality Act

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I don’t know about you, but I find myself getting agitated pretty easily these days, often in ways that are not fitting for a believing Christian. I have been thinking a lot about the perils of living in a society which is becoming more and more overtly hostile to many of the norms that were simply taken for granted by the vast majority of our fellow citizens a mere 20 years ago. I’ll come back to that in a minute. 

Read a letter to from the Colorado Bishops on the Equality Act here.

First, in order to avoid inciting unchristian agitation in you, I want to share a blessing I received from my husband a few days ago, just as I was launching into a bitter rant about how hostile so many have become to basic Catholic ideas.  As part of his Lenten discipline, he has been reading through all four Gospels, and that morning he interrupted and extinguished my rant by reading aloud the words of Jesus that he had just read:  

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5: 43-48). 

That caught me up short.  The words “your heavenly Father … causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust,” especially reverberated in my mind.  Maybe it’s just that I am anxious to get out in my dry Colorado garden, but for the rest of the day I kept coming back to those words and to the fact that the Father is the one in charge and that while it’s okay and maybe even necessary for me to do my little bit and do it energetically, it’s not okay for me to hate or fear or malign those who respond to my Catholic witness by calling me a “hater.” The Father causes the rain to fall on all of us, and I must do my part in his vineyard without undermining his work in me by succumbing to bitterness or reveling in outrage, temptations that my personality is all too prone to.  

The flipside of my temptation is felt by those who are so overwhelmed by the rapid change in “acceptable ideas” that they lose their confidence in what the Church teaches or even try to alter Church teaching in order to make it compatible with the culture’s new ideas. We are called to witness to the truths of our faith in season and out of season, but Catholics in America have become so accustomed to being accepted in the mainstream that it can be very hard for us to appreciate just how “out of season” core teachings of our Church are right now.    

The fact is that there are a number of non-negotiable teachings of our Church which we once could have confidently and respectfully proposed for consideration, but which many are now afraid to speak out loud. For example:   

  • That marriage is the union of one man and one woman and that it is not only meant for the “actualization” of the spouses but also to provide the best setting for raising physically, emotionally, and socially healthy children;   
  • That children are not commodities and should not be conceived in petri dishes and sorted for life or death according to pre-ordered specifications;  
  • That human beings are, from conception, immutably male or female;   
  • That hard-won civil rights protecting people from unjust discrimination based on immutable race or sex should not be co-opted to undermine the protections extended to women to protect them from male violence and from men having unfair advantages over them in the workplace, the marketplace, in education or in the sports arena;   
  • And, finally, that people should not be forced, either legally or economically, to violate their own consciences by participating in others’ violation of these norms.    

These ideas, all of which conform with the Church’s continuous teaching, are now regularly denounced in public as naked bigotry comparable to that of an unrepentant leader of the KKK.   

The last three on the list will be undermined by the law itself if the U.S. Senate passes the misnamed Equality Act, which has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives and which President Biden has promised to sign into law. The consequences, especially for women and children, will be severe. Here are just a few examples of the foreseeable consequences:    

  • Girls and women who compete in sports won’t be protected from having to compete with athletes-who-identify-as-female who have gone through male puberty, whose muscles have been bathed in amounts of muscle strengthening testosterone far in excess of any female’s, and whose metabolisms release energy at a rate with which no female’s can match;  
  • Parents will not be able to protect even young children from exposure to or encouragement of confusion about sexual identity;
  • Physicians and mental health professionals who question whether “gender transition” is really in the best interest of a particular minor will not be able to give those in their care their best counsel;   
  • In addition, the Equality Act would force physicians and nurses to participate in abortions, undoing longstanding legal protections for conscientious objection, because the Act redefines objection to abortion as “pregnancy discrimination” and explicitly forbids accommodation for religious or conscience objections by “providers.”  

Any one of those foreseeable consequences should agitate all of us. We should all be stirred at least to refuse to lie when we are asked what we think.  And any of us who claim to profess and teach the faith must muster both the courage and the love to face being denounced as a hater, knowing that if we do not stand against the force of these lies, those who denounce us will have no one else to witness to the truth for them.   

Our Father in heaven makes it rain on all of us.  Let us stand firm in the truth that we are all his beloved children, that we are all made in his image, that he made us male and female, and that it is not good for any of us to attempt to re-make ourselves in an image of our own choosing.  We hate no one.  It is because we love our fellow citizens that we insist on witnessing publicly to the truth. 

Dr. Selner-Wright holds the Archbishop Chaput Chair of Philosophy at St. John Vianney Theological  Seminary and is a member of the leadership team at the EPPC’s Person and Identity Project, which offers a Catholic response to gender confusion:  

Featured Photo by Julien Gaud on Unsplash