Vice President Biden has decided not to run, but it is worthwhile to consider one of the problems he would have confronted if he had run. I have in mind the Catholic problem. It is not the same problem John Kennedy faced when he ran for President. The concern then was that he would be a puppet of the Vatican. Kennedy argued to the Houston Ministerial Association that he favored religious freedom, separation of church and state, and that he would follow his conscience rather than the impositions of religious prelates and he trusted that a Protestant would do the same. I wish he had made the point that it was part of Catholic doctrine that a person should follow his conscience rather than the views of Church leaders when he could not bring himself to agree. But Kennedy’s speech opened the door for him to run for the Presidency and his success made it clear that a Catholic could become President.
Biden’s Catholic problem is somewhat different. His problem was faced by John Kerry when he ran for President. Kerry took the position that abortion was immoral, but the choice of whether to have an abortion should be made by the woman, not by the state. In other words, he endorsed the view the view of Roe v. Wade that abortion should not be criminalized. The problem was that some Catholic Bishops took the position that Kerry should not be permitted to receive communion because his position contradicted Catholic doctrine. Many Democratic leaders believe that the opposition from these Bishops cost Kerry the election.
Biden, of course, has a similar problem. Indeed, in 2008 when Biden ran for Vice President, Bishop Martino of Scranton (Biden’s hometown, but not his current parish) publicly announced that Biden would be denied communion in Scranton. More recently another Bishop took the position that Biden would not be welcome to take communion in Colorado Springs, and Biden’s former Bishop said that Biden should not be able to speak at Catholic schools. See here.
As I understand the teaching of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic politicians who take Biden’s position either should not take communion (or, at least, the suggestion is strong that they should not), and individual Bishops can explicitly forbid specific politicians from taking communion in their dioceses. See here. It is notable that the recent worldwide Synod of Bishops considered divorced Catholics, remarried Catholics, gay and lesbian couples, and unmarried couples living together. But Catholics holding Biden’s views were not discussed. Abortion was not on the agenda. It is true that the Pope has indicated that women who have had abortion can be forgiven by the Church. But the statements by the U.S. Bishops on politicians, abortion, and communion have not been reconsidered.
Is Biden a sinner according to the Church? Not necessarily. There is a long tradition stretching back to Aquinas holding that persons must follow their conscience rather than the mandates of the Church when the two conflict. Conservative Catholics tend to hold that there can be no conflict because the conscience must be well formed and it cannot be well formed if it conflicts with Church teaching. What the conservatives cannot do is show that this circularity was ever part of Church tradition. On the other hand, the Church can decide that those politicians who “cooperate with evil” in the eyes of the Church (certainly not in my eyes) and/or who have departed from Church teaching should not take communion or should be characterized as having separated themselves from the Church even if following their conscience is morally required. The Bishops have been relentless in telling those who cannot come to terms with Church teachings that they are willfully stubborn and obdurate. The result has been that most Catholics ignore many of the Bishops’ positions (think about contraception). Many who do not ignore the Bishops leave the Church. The second largest religious group in the United States: former Catholics.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Bishops remain powerful. Robert Shrum, who among many other things was John Kerry’s campaign speech writer, wonders in his absorbing book No Excuses whether a Catholic can ever get the Democratic nomination again. Certainly a pro-life Democrat could not get the Democratic nomination. But pro-choice Catholic Democrats will draw the fire of Catholic Bishops in ways that make them less likely than Protestants to attract the important Catholic vote. John Kennedy opened the door, but the Bishops have all but slammed it shut.