OPINION: The Graceless Censure of Joe Biden

Read in your language:

FRANK BRUNI in The New York Times: Joe Biden is only the second Catholic president in American history. You would think that the church’s leaders in the United States would look kindly and proudly on him.

You would be wrong. They’re going farther out of their way to admonish him than they ever did to reprimand Donald Trump.

As you probably know, Roman Catholic bishops in the United States have taken steps toward possibly denying communion to Biden, who pays them the compliment of regular attendance at Mass. His sin? Support for abortion rights.

But I do not see the wisdom or the grace in the bishops’ censuring Biden in such a strident, flamboyant manner when there’s so much else in his agenda for them to applaud, so much else in his actions that honors the church’s supposed values. I do not see why his position on abortion should erase and eclipse his efforts to provide financial aid to the poor, to protect vulnerable children, to recognize marginalized groups, to fight racism, to vaccinate people in developing countries, to heal the planet.

In an astute essay in The Week, Peter Weber noted the extreme harshness of the punishment for Biden that bishops are proposing, writing: “Deploying what amounts to the Catholic nuclear option only on abortion signals that abortion is the only issue the Catholic Church really cares about.”

An abortion monomania is the only explanation for why Biden is coming in for greater condemnation than Trump received. For many Catholic leaders as well as many leaders of other Christian denominations, Trump’s promotion of anti-abortion judges and measures often served as a get-out-of-jail-free card — and it shouldn’t have.

The Bidens at Catholic Mass on Inauguration Day.Evan Vucci/Associated Press. PIC: NY Times

I concede that Trump isn’t Catholic and that he wasn’t going to Catholic services (or, on a regular basis, to any worship services whatsoever). Catholic leaders had less cause in that sense to weigh in on his degree of adherence to their strictures.

But they purport to care about the welfare of all humanity. That’s kind of their raison d’être. Along those lines, they had ample invitation to upbraid Trump.

Pope Francis gets it. He understands that his church and its followers shouldn’t be reduced to any one issue. Indeed, the Vatican tried to nudge the American bishops away from this course and has conspicuously not endorsed it. The bishops are marching to the beat of their own pious drummer. They no doubt consider themselves brave. Arrogant is as apt a descriptor.

Foolish, too. They’re not going to change Biden’s mind about abortion. And the sternness that they’re projecting — the imperiousness — makes it less likely that they’ll change anyone else’s.

That imperiousness is what Francis has been striving to move the church away from. He’s trying to put a friendlier, more accessible face on its hierarchy. He’s trying to modernize its image. He knows that you can’t preach to people effectively if your voice and your language feel utterly alien to them.

And you can’t win them over if your animating impulse is a punitive rather than exalting one.