In her October 9 column “Ryan v. Biden: the Catholic ‘Thrilla in Manila,’” Washington Post “She the People” columnist Melinda Henneberger made a common journalistic error when discussing the Catholic Church, introducing a false dichotomy between “liberal” Catholicism’s emphasis on social issues and “conservative” Catholicism’s emphasis on pro-life issues. Predictably, she came down hard on “conservative” Catholics and “Fox News bishops” for “unwittingly whittling away at their own influence with the increasingly secular Democratic party.” (And, needless to say, that’s the only influence that matters at The Washington Post.)
But the Catholic Church has not altered her moral teaching. It’s Democratic politicians that have changed and increasingly embraced policies directly opposed to Church teaching, such as same-sex marriage and abortion. Henneberger herself noted the Democrats' enthusiastic embrace of abortion at their convention just over a month ago.
Her column began with an interesting comparison of the Catholic faith of Biden and Ryan. Biden, Henneberger informed her readers, “never misses Mass. His trip planners regularly scout for parishes where there’d be no big fuss over him – and no risk of him being denied communion over his pro-choice politics.” Ryan, a “former altar boy, is just as serious in his practice,” Henneberger noted.
But after noting the Catholic backgrounds and different worldviews of the two vice presidential candidates, she lamented that those worldviews as emblematic of a rift in the American Catholic Church between conservatives and liberals: “But I am sorry that it takes two Catholic leaders to present the whole of church teaching, while the institution remains as divided as the two men who on Thursday will offer their competing visions of what matters, and what we ought to do about it.”
But the supposed division in the Church is a false one; the Catholic Church is apolitical, demanding that political leaders in both parties exhibit respect for life (born and unborn) and human dignity. Cardinal Timothy Dolan delivered the closing prayer at both the Democratic and Republican conventions (albeit after some hesitation from the Democrats.) And the hierarchy of the Church is certainly not shy about its concern for immigrants or about its support for pro-life issues.
But Henneberger did see division in the Church – and clearly came down in favor of the “liberal” side. After briefly chiding Biden for his supposed “insistence that he doesn’t want to impose his morality on anybody in a pluralistic country,” she leveled her first broadside against conservative Catholics: “What Ryan could learn from Biden is that the leading cause of abortion in this country is poverty; once you recognize that cutting Medicaid would surely increase the number of financially struggling women who’d opt to have the procedure, the Catholic calculus even on that one issue isn’t so clear any more.”
The best method to stop abortion is to halt poverty – it’s an old chestnut from pro-abortion advocates. But the facts don’t bear that data out; so-called “red states” with less comprehensive welfare regimes have lower abortion rates than “blue states.”
Never mind the facts, Henneberger used this argument to scold pro-life Catholics for voting Republican. “Many Catholics stick with the Republicans because they keep promising to overturnRoe v. Wade, but they don’t ever deliver on that promise, and won’t. As even strongly pro-choice Nancy Pelosi told me recently, “Let’s face it, the Republicans have had the House, Senate and White House any number of times; they could have overturned Roe and they didn’t.’’
"She’s right about that.”
Of course, Henneberger’s readers would be wise to embrace a healthy skepticism about any such pronouncement from Pelosi, who hilariously argued that government-funded birth control constituted economic stimulus.
Besides, what about those frantic attempts of the Democratic leadership to uphold funding for an abortion provider in the face of Republican-led attempts to defund Planned Parenthood? Or the ominous language they use warning of the Republican “war on women?”
Anyway, neither party is or has ever been monolithic on the subject of abortion: there are pro-life Democrats, just as there are pro-abortion Republicans.
Henneberger’s final paragraph slammed bishops who have spoken out firmly against the HHS mandate: “Keep it up, and strong Catholic voices like that of Biden, who argued against the Health and Human Services mandate as it was written, will have less leverage. And as time goes on, there will be fewer Joe Bidens inside the party who will pick up the phone when a bishop calls.”
Again, it’s paramount to Henneberger that the Church doesn’t alienate the cool party. But the Church views its mission as teaching truth and the salvation of souls; this mission does not mean making comfortable those who reject the Church’s teachings. The HHS mandate is an attack on the application of the basic teachings of the Faith, and bishops would be remiss in their duty if they did not boldly oppose it. Besides, Timothy Cardinal Dolan tried to work with the White House before and after the mandate was issued. The administration refused a religious freedom exemption anyway.
The Church is not beholden to a particular party – ironically, Henneberger’s insistence on the false dichotomy between “social justice” Catholicism and “pro-life” Catholicism engenders the very division in the Church she laments. But many Democratic politicians have chosen to dedicate themselves to a cause that is opposed to Church teaching, whereas many Republican politicians have embraced a different vision of implementing “social justice” – one that isn’t compulsory and government-centered.
And in the religion of liberalism, that’s where heresy lies.