Biden, the bishops, and a failure to communicate

American Catholic bishops have apparently backed off plans to deny the Holy Communion from practicing Catholic Democratic politicians like President Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Comments from the Jesuit Pope Francis and public sentiment appear to have convinced the bishops that this stance would be politically unwise at this time.

California Republican and gubernatorial candidate Caitlyn Jenner, who in a long-ago life trained for the Olympic Games in the same small Iowa town I called home for about fifteen years over three residencies (although we did not overlap), was harassed by her own party members at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) for the “sin” of her sexual identity. Florida governor Ron DeSantis also seems similarly obsessed with inspecting the genitals of student athletes.

Is morality, in the end, only about abortion and non-heterosexuality? Back in 2018 when I started this blog, I tried to parse the difference between the terms morality and ethics. While I tossed out some generally accepted academic differences, I made the throw-away comment then that, for most people, immorality seems to be more about matters relating to sex than anything else. In 2021, the broadsword public morality battles are fought on even narrower ground, seemingly limited to these two topics.

Back in 2013, University of Pennsylvania Professor Robert Kurzban and senior researcher Jason Weeden published a study on religiosity and morality in the western world with a very high sample size (n=300,000). From The Daily Pennslyvanian’s summary of this study:

According to the study, in New Zealand, Austria, North America and Western Europe, a person’s reproductive morals are six times more likely to predict religiosity than differences in cooperative morals.

“If you know what people think about casual sex, abortion, et cetera, then you can make a good guess about how religious they are,” Weeden said. “But you don’t learn much more about how religious they are by also knowing what they think about lying, stealing, et cetera.”

While that assessment might explain the blind eye given by religious conservatives to the blatant mendacity and financial corruption by Donald Trump and his cabinet that was on tap daily for four years, their reaction to sexual impropriety has been more mystifying to me. During the four years of Trump, his sexual indiscretions were widely defended from conservative Christian pulpits as akin to those of the mighty King David of Israel, who was excused by the supposed greatness of his works. Trump’s eldest son and namesake gained popularity among these same churchgoers even as he left his wife, the mother of his five children, for an open affair with a celebrity newsreader, who was herself an onstage fixture in the re-election campaign.

Enforcing most areas of traditional moral probity on their parishioners has, it seems to me, thus become harder for conservative Christian leaders without their blatant hypocrisy showing through. My take is that the traditional “scarlet letter” sins of conservative Christianity, like sexual indiscretion and divorce, have been pushed back by necessity into the corner, and the “morality defense” has become largely limited to two last-stand sex-related issues — abortion and LGBTQ issues. Ironically, Donald Trump expressed no disapproval with either of these issues before running for president. I will deal with LGBTQ issues in a subsequent post, but in this post, I want to foolishly wade back into the abortion debate that binds so many Christians tightly to Trump’s party, and appears to prevent them from accepting the much more religiously observant Joe Biden.

Partly because of their rule-based focus on “inerrant” scripture, and partly for political expediency, the Religious Right typically refuses to even engage with what I see as the three most common and compelling stances on abortion made by observant Catholics like President Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as so many other professing non-Evangelical Christians. The first stance I call a “math and consequences” argument, and the second a “social justice” argument. After that, a little biology is in order, where science itself becomes the demon.

The math of reducing abortion

I have noted before that the poor math skills of many Americans are unnecessarily getting people killed by the coronavirus. A similar math problem appears to be evident with abortion. A relevant math question is “Which approach results in fewer abortions in the long term — (1) rigid laws prosecuting doctors and abortion-seeking women? Or (2) expanded reproductive healthcare aimed especially at poor women and teen girls?”

Each side can throw up competing studies here. I think the 2008-2015 initiative in Colorado to provide free long-acting reversible contraception yielded some compelling data for alternative #2. The experiences of most Western European countries with universal healthcare and reproductive choice tend to demonstrate that expanded healthcare availability and choice greatly reduces the number of abortions performed. Abortion is not treated lightly in any of these countries. In the U.S., abortion rates fell much more during the healthcare-friendly Clinton and Obama administrations than during the Bush and Trump years.

Here is my point: Even if anti-abortion advocates have their own competing data, it should be obvious that observant Catholics like Biden and Pelosi are not advocating for abortion. Rather they are advocating for healthcare and data. Demonizing these two politicians and the millions of other religiously observant Americans who have come to a different interpretation of the facts is not going to get us anywhere. It is just displaying an intentional ignorance of the math.

Conservatives almost always jump in defense with the fantasy that strong laws, legal harassment, and harsh punishment will stop abortions completely. Abortions that you don’t see don’t exist. This leads to my next point.

The social justice argument

This perspective was taught to me, as I have noted before, by a group of feminist nuns with whom I studied ethics in the 1990s. Due to the shortage of ordained priests in their archdiocese, these women were taking graduate-level classes in theology and church administration to better cope with their new roles. They were being required to basically run everything in many parishes that did not require an ordained priest, from the cash collection to the janitorial services, and that put them on the frontlines of ministry, often for the first time.

What they learned quickly was that the rules of the Church played out very differently in the rich parishes of the suburbs as compared with the inner-city congregations. Despite a church ban on birth control, the suburban parish families were much smaller (obvious to anyone who could count at Sunday mass) and they appeared to have fewer unwed pregnancies. This was not, they learned, because the better-off mothers and teen girls were having less sex, but rather because the priests were essentially “looking the other way” regarding the use of birth control and even abortion in these parishes. Money has the power to silence.

As one of our Jesuit mentors liked to say, “Morality must be based on reality,” and clearly the reality was that the poor women are being held to church dogma in their home parishes that the rich women get to escape. The poor women “bear the public sin” of actions that rich women are allowed to practice with impunity in private. Either have too many children because the church bans birth control, or risk Hell by having an abortion. That choice, imposed by their church, is the epitome of social injustice.

Conservative Christians supporting Donald Trump have demonstrated this principle for the last four years. “Rich people morality” gets celebrated in social media while those bearing the many burdens of poverty get mocked and prosecuted.

As I recall, Jesus had a few words to say about social justice. Some parts of the Bible are read less from pulpits than others.

The “life begins at conception” card

In defense of Catholic tradition, the Church’s ban on virtually all forms of contraception is at least consistent if your ethical position is the mystical “life begins at conception.” Anti-abortion Protestant women rarely object to birth control, even though several common forms of contraception work primarily by discouraging the implantation of fertilized zygotes. Even the most popular hormonal methods sometimes work via this effect. And yet, among non-Catholic Christians, a total ban on birth control is just not going to be adopted as policy in the United States. Inconsistency and obfuscation are much easier self-justify.

And then there is basic reproductive biology. I wrote back in 2018 how conception and birth is nature’s version of the lottery. The odds against you being here are incredibly large, and yet, thanks to “the law of large numbers” (take your biology credit here, men), here you are! I note in that post that up to 50% of fertilized human zygotes, by credible estimates, fail to implant successfully without human intervention. Theologically, that reality creates a problem for the “life begins at conception” argument. Who/what is the biggest terminator of “conception” here?

And with just a few microseconds of difference in conception time, the Pope himself had a near-50/50 chance of being a girl! (Iowa native Susan Werner wrote a great song with that reminder.) We have all, for good and bad, drawn the heredity cards handed to us in a marvelously random process, and we all overcame many obstacles to ever coming out of the chute. Our mothers’ reproductive choice (and far too often, lack of, which we likely would rather not know) was just one of those hurdles.

And one last thing

I’m a guy (which was also a 50/50 chance), as are all the bishops. I am the long-ago recipient of reproductive choice, or perhaps the lack of. Beyond that I am only a provider of data for your consideration. My personal “skin in the game” is limited, as is the state of most political decision-makers on this issue, and that is a very important factor. But there is one side here that appears intentionally responsible for “a failure to communicate.”

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1 thought on “Biden, the bishops, and a failure to communicate

  1. Richardgladiatorjohnson

    Great, informative Blog Post.
    Stay encouraged and be blessed.
    It would be interesting to note the Anti Abortion political movement via Protestant American Churches launched late 1970’s as a direct result to advances in America Society away from White Male Supremacy.
    See this article for some background:


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