During Thursday night’s debate, Vice President Joe Biden was asked by moderator Martha Raddatz to address his Roman Catholicism and his position on abortion. He stated in a very somber tone that “My religion defines who I am,” and that he’s a practicing Catholic.
It’s not odd to hear those two statements hand-in-hand with one another, but the true mystery in Biden’s remarks came when he described the Church’s teaching on abortion and his answer to the same:
I accept my church???s position on abortion as a — what we call a de fide doctrine. Life begins at conception in the church???s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others… (Emphasis added.)
First of all, to any genuinely principled person who takes the teachings of the Catholic Church seriously, there would not have to be such a drastic divide between one’s personal life of faith and the life of public service. In fact, it seems that upon a cursory observation, the two worlds would inform each other, one enriching the other, with the primary enrichment going from that of faith to that of life in the world. This is, however, not necessarily the platform in which one should address the complete disjunction in the vice president’s life.
Secondly, and to the most important point, how on earth is the Church’s teaching on abortion one that is de fide? To say that a particular tenet of the faith is de fide, is to say several things: Firstly, that it is something explicitly revealed by God to the Church. Secondly, that it has been declared by the Church — either through the teaching of the pope or a dogmatic council — to be true and a necessary part of the faith. And, thirdly, that while there can be reasons from the light of a human person’s intellect used to make belief more palatable — take for instance the Church’s use of Duns Scotus’s philosophical justification for the Immaculate Conception — the doctrine ultimately escapes reasoning through the natural faculties of the human person’s mind alone, and consequently must be acceded to on the basis of faith.
For our purposes, the first and third points made above are of particular importance. When Biden asserts that the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion is something that has been explicitly revealed by God, he is outright false. The history of the Church has been marked with a developed and markedly particular understanding of the human person in the womb. Granted, medieval biology may have led Thomas Aquinas to assert that the fetus was not “ensouled” until after the first few weeks following conception, the point remains unchanged that the Church has always viewed the intentional killing of a child in the womb as murder and, therefore, unlawful.
Simply because the Church has been more vocal about her opposition to abortion does not mean that it was encouraged or tolerated in the past. Rather, as the doctrinal history of the Church demonstrates, teachings are refined and promulgated when there is a grave threat against which the Church must fight. In other words, the development of the deeper definition that is so pronounced in contemporary times is done in response to the attacks of a hostile culture that favors and abets the evil of abortion.
Now, one of the gifts of the Catholic intellectual tradition is that it works to harmonize both the use and conclusions of human reasoning and the sometimes difficult-to-believe aspects of a supernatural faith. In this tradition, the reliance upon and favor given to reason is striking. Catholic theologians and indeed most priests must study philosophy for several years before they can proceed on to study theology. When the vice president asserted that the Church’s position on abortion is de fide, he without a doubt concomitantly claimed that that position is one which does not rely on reason or natural science.
If anything, such a claim is completely unfounded, given that the Church’s teaching on abortion is based both on the inherent dignity of the human person, no matter what its state or position in life, and the reasonableness of a natural law, which dictates to our consciences a certain way of acting that seeks first to do what is good and to avoid that which is deemed evil — or contrary to the good. For the Church, the act of willfully killing another person, particularly a person who is most vulnerable, is a great and terrible evil.
Therefore, when Biden proposed Thursday night that the Church’s view on the intrinsic dignity of life was something he couldn’t both understand through reason or seek to convince others of, he did not only a great disservice to the weak who rely on the protection of those in power, he also misled those in the Catholic Church who look to their elected officials to be an example of what is right and just in a free country.