Many of our Catholic hierarchical leaders in America are not fans of President-elect Joe Biden—perhaps with substantial reason. The atmosphere is very different from sixty years ago when the Catholic world was elated by the election of John F. Kennedy. Celebrated then was the fact that a Catholic could become leader of our Waspish nation, not unlike when President Obama was elected as the first black president twelve years ago. Bishops in 1960 did not know much about President Kennedy’s moral code. If they did, I suspect they would have alerted people to realize that he was Catholic in name—not in behavior. Their issue with Biden today is a little different.
Most would agree that what is known about Biden’s personal and private moral behavior is more noble than that of Presidents Trump or Kennedy. But his public and political views, especially those pertaining to pelvic issues, stand in opposition to those of ecclesiastics. Catholic church leaders seem to be obsessed with such matters: pre-marital and extra-marital sex, homosexual acts, abortion and use of contraceptives, stem cell and fetal tissue research, etc. It is interesting to peruse moral equivalency comparisons of future, current, and former presidents. Joe Biden seems to come out rather well overall—but in these sexual areas that the church holds so dear, he is deemed by some to be a bad Catholic.
With revelations in recent decades that the church harbors all kinds of sexual hang-ups, dark secrets, and criminal acts, it is prime time for more honest conversation about what it means to be Catholic in the United States. It is time to let go of self-righteous and judgmental attitudes that some church leaders and parishioners carry. It is time to admit that most Catholics in our country do not agree with, or adhere to, the absolute antiabortion, antigay, anticontraception, anti-masturbation, anti-sexual-thoughts stance that religionists profess. Most Catholics are good, smart, thoughtful people who appreciate the moral guidance of the church as well as the challenging legislative roles of public office holders. Most Catholics also adhere to basic philosophical principles when facing tough decisions, e.g., the common good, double effect, greater good, lesser of evils, etc., and realize the challenges that bishops and elected officials endure. While we should never trivialize the seriousness of abortion as the preeminent life issue, or condone casual sex, we should also not condemn those who make honest efforts to do their best amidst challenging circumstances.
Much has happened between the elections of Kennedy and Biden. The Roe vs. Wade decision to legalize abortion in the early 1970s shifted the moral issue to a political one, even though we realize that morality cannot be legislated. In the ‘80s, because of conflicting allegiances, priests who held public office were forced to give up their elected positions (from U. S. Congressman Robert Drinan, S.J. of Massachusetts to John Giacopelli, who served as a Jackson County legislator). By the ‘90s, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, that wrote many pastoral letters and provided a moral compass for Washington, D. C. decision-makers, stopped writing as ecclesial leaders lost credibility when their own sex-scandals and mismanagement surfaced. Since then, movies, like Philadelphia, and television shows, like Modern Family and Schitt$ Creek, have portrayed loving gay relationships that help people to better understand the challenges of mature and healthy relations with, and among, gay people.
When bishops and priests are open to watching and discussing stories like these, we will more likely get parishioners to view abortion videos, to recognize the horrors of destroying pre-natal life, and to engage in meaningful dialogue; we will also become more likely to let the Holy Spirit guide our understanding. Episcopalian priest, Randall Balmer of Dartmouth, recently chastised American Catholic bishops because, as he says, they should be celebrating the election of a devout Roman Catholic rather than seeking retaliation upon him. He’s right. Our perception of the morality of Biden, Trump, Kennedy, or anyone else, shouldn’t matter. What should matter is how we make a better America and better Catholic Church. We will do that, not by judging or demoralizing others but, by growing in collective wisdom.