WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden launched his bid to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Thursday, ending months of speculation. Over the course of his long political career, Biden has grappled with reconciling his Catholic faith with his stances on issues like abortion and marriage that contradict central Church teachings.
One significant Church teaching where Biden has shifted is abortion. As The New York Times recently noted, Biden was pro-life when he began his Senate career in 1973. He argued that the Supreme Court had gone “too far” on abortion in the Roe v. Wade decision and stated in 1974 that a woman shouldn’t have the “sole right to say what should happen to her body.”
The Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion is very clear. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” (2271).
However, Biden changed his stance on the issue over his decades in Congress, saying initially that he supported abortion but was opposed to using taxpayer money to fund it.
In 1981, he introduced “the Biden amendment,” which prohibited foreign-aid funding from going to biomedical research involving abortion. He appeared to reverse that position in 2005, however, by voting against President George W. Bush’s reinstatement of the Reagan-era Mexico City Policy, which blocks taxpayer funding to organizations that provide abortion overseas.
Biden refused to comment to The New York Times about his current stance on taxpayer funding for abortion. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has repeatedly emphasized that “taxpayer dollars should never fund abortion.”
Biden did back a partial-birth abortion ban in 1997 and then in 2003. In a Senate floor speech in 1997, he said he “was and still am concerned that in banning only partial-birth abortions, we do not go far enough.” However, when the ban was upheld by the Supreme Court in April 2007, Biden criticized the high court’s ruling as “paternalistic,” saying it could lead to overturning Roe.
“They blurred the distinction between the government’s role in being involved in the first day and the ninth month,” he argued against the ruling on Meet the Press. “They became paternalistic, talking about [how] the court could consider the impact on the mother and keeping her from making a mistake. This is all code for saying, ‘Here we come to undo Roe v. Wade.’”
In that same interview, Biden argued that the Roe v. Wade ruling “is as close to we’re going to be able to get as a society that incorporates the general lines of debate within Christendom, Judaism and other faiths, where it basically says there is a sliding scale relating to viability of a fetus.”
Biden also referenced “debates about life” in Church history, including St. Thomas Aquinas’ idea that the human soul was not present until “40 days to quickening.” Biden did not mention that despite his thoughts on ensoulment, Aquinas condemned abortion as a “grave evil” and “against nature,” as the USCCB has pointed out.
In 2015, Biden told America magazine that he accepted “on faith” that human life begins at conception but that he was unwilling to impose that view on others.
“I’m prepared to accept that at the moment of conception there’s human life and being,” he said at the time, “but I’m not prepared to say that to other God-fearing, non-God-fearing people that have a different view.”
Over the years, Biden has earned ample criticism and correction from U.S. bishops over his support of abortion.
Time noted that, in 2006, “then-Wilmington Bishop Michael Saltarelli pressured Biden’s high school alma mater into dropping plans to name a new student center after him, citing a 2004 statement from the USCCB: ‘Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.’”
Archbishop Charles Chaput and Bishop James Conley responded to Biden’s comments on abortion in 2008, writing that “abortion is a foundational issue” and “is always grievously wrong.” They added that, “in reality, modern biology knows exactly when human life begins: at the moment of conception. Religion has nothing to do with it.”
“If, as Sen. Biden said, ‘I’m prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception,’ then he is not merely wrong about the science of new life; he also fails to defend the innocent life he already knows is there,” the bishops emphasized at the time.
And on Election Day 2008, Bishop John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, wrote a letter to Biden after it was disclosed that the vice-presidential candidate had received Communion the previous Sunday at a Mass he attended at a church in Bishop Ricard’s diocese.
Bishop Ricard’s letter cited relevant passages from the U.S. bishops’ 2004 document “Catholics in Political Life,” regarding reception of Communion by those in public life, indicating that someone with Biden’s position on abortion should not present himself for Communion.
In his letter, Bishop Ricard praised Biden’s positive contributions to public life but added, “I also observe, by your support for laws that fail to protect the unborn, a profound disconnection from your human and personal obligation to protect the weakest and most innocent among us: the child in the womb.”
In 2016, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, condemned the University of Notre Dame for honoring Biden with the Laetare Medal due to his support of abortion.
“I believe it is wrong for Notre Dame to honor any ‘pro-choice’ public official with the Laetare Medal,” he said in a statement, “even if he/she has other positive accomplishments in public service, since direct abortion is gravely contrary to the natural law and violates a very fundamental principle of Catholic moral and social teaching: the inalienable right to life of every innocent human being from the moment of conception.”
Another major Church teaching that Biden has broken with over the years is the teaching that marriage is a union between one man and one woman ordered toward the good of the spouses and procreation. The Church teaches that homosexuality is “objectively disordered,” and persons with such an inclination are “called to chastity.”
Initially, Biden voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, but in a 2012 interview he said he was “absolutely comfortable” with allowing same-sex couples to marry. His comment reportedly pressured then-President Barack Obama to come out with a similar statement shortly after.
Biden has since been even more vocal in support of same-sex “marriage.” He earned some veiled condemnation from the USCCB when he presided over a gay wedding in 2016. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, New York, and Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami wrote a statement generally condemning the action without mentioning Biden by name.
“When a prominent Catholic politician publicly and voluntarily officiates at a ceremony to solemnize the relationship of two people of the same-sex,” they wrote, “confusion arises regarding Catholic teaching on marriage and the corresponding moral obligations of Catholics. What we see is a counter witness, instead of a faithful one founded in the truth.”
Bishops have also criticized Biden over inaccurate claims when he was championing Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate. The rule threatened the religious freedom of Catholic groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor who held with the Church’s teaching against contraception and refused to cover or refer for contraception.
“No religious institution — Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital — none has to either refer contraception,” Biden claimed in a 2012 vice-presidential debate, “none has to pay for contraception; none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact.”
The USCCB flatly denied his claim in a statement, writing, “This is not a fact. The HHS mandate contains a narrow, four-part exemption for certain ‘religious employers.’ That exemption was made final in February and does not extend to ‘Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital,’ or any other religious charity that offers its services to all, regardless of the faith of those served.”
Weighing Biden’s Record
In his campaign announcement Thursday, Biden argued that “we are in a battle for the soul of this nation.”
Heading into the 2020 election, practicing Catholics might question Biden’s stance in that battle, as they weigh central moral issues such as the defense of innocent unborn life and truths about marriage and family.
Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.