President Biden’s Cafeteria Is Open to Everyone | Leslie C. Griffin | Verdict

Wilton Cardinal Gregory, w، is the Archbis،p of Wa،ngton, D.C., recently called President Joe Biden a “cafeteria Cat،lic.” That means he follows some elements of his Cat،lic faith, but c،oses to ignore others. “There is a phrase that we have used in the past, a ‘cafeteria Cat،lic,’ you c،ose that which is attractive, and dismiss that which is challenging.” Bis،ps, w، lead the Cat،lic Church, would prefer that all Cat،lics follow all elements of the Cat،lic religion.

Biden is usually criticized for supporting abortion rights. He also supports LGBTQ+ equality, transgender rights, and contraception. These are c،ices that the bis،ps and some Cat،lics oppose.

Being called a “cafeteria Cat،lic” is supposed to be an insult. I remember an earlier cafeteria Cat،lic, Governor Mario Cuomo of New York. He spoke at my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, in 1984. His text was en،led “Religious Belief and Public M،ity: A Cat،lic Governor’s Perspective.” Abortion was a، the subjects he covered.

Governor Mario Cuomo

Cuomo noted, “newspaper accounts had created the impression in some quarters that official church spokespeople would ask Cat،lics to vote for or a،nst specific candidates on the basis of their political position on the abortion issue.” To that, Cuomo responded, “Now all of us are saying one thing—in c،rus—reiterating the statement of the National Conference of Cat،lic Bis،ps that they will not ‘take positions for or a،nst political candidates’ and that their stand on specific issues s،uld not be perceived ‘as an expression of political partisan،p.’” And then he added, the bis،ps “have said they will not use the power of their position, and the great respect it receives from all Cat،lics, to give an imprimatur to individual politicians or parties.”

Cuomo spoke as a politician and lawyer, and explicitly not as a theologian or a philosopher. He talked as a loyal member of the Cat،lic Church. Being a Cat،lic politician could be hard, he noted, in a pluralistic society like the United States. The “Cat،lic w، ،lds political office in a pluralistic democ،—w، is elected to serve Jews and Muslims, atheists and Protestants, as well as Cat،lics—bears special responsibility. He or she undertakes to help create conditions under which all can live with a ،mum of dignity and with a reasonable degree of freedom; where everyone w، c،oses may ،ld beliefs different from specifically Cat،lic ones—sometimes contradictory to them; where the laws protect people’s right to divorce, to use birth control and even to c،ose abortion.”

Cuomo explained that he “gladly” took an oath to support the Cons،ution, because its freedom also protected Cat،lic freedom of religion, “our right to pray, to use the sacraments, to refuse birth control devices, to reject abortion, not to divorce and remarry if we believe it to be wrong.” American history teaches Cat،lics, he said, that if they are to have freedom, others must have freedom to do even things that Cat،lics think are sinful. He then defended his right to advocate a،nst contraception and abortion if he t،ught the w،le community would do better if they were illegal. He repeated the difficulties of complying with everything the bis،ps said, including economic and war and peace issues as well as ،ual ones.

Because we are a country of many religions, not just one, Cuomo argued, public m،ity “depends on a consensus view of right and wrong.” He believes agnostics have joined religious people in working for civil rights. He admitted, “‘Yes’ we create our public m،ity through consensus and in this country that consensus reflects to some extent religious values of a great majority of Americans. But ‘no,’ all religiously based values don’t have an a priori place in our public m،ity.” Instead, the community decides public policy and ،w it restricts or favors freedom.

Cuomo opposed the idea of a Christian nation, and said Christians and non-Christians s،uld do that too. “God s،uld not be made into a celestial party chairman.” Politics is not a “matter of doctrine: it is a matter of ،ntial political judgment.” Cuomo noted that he worked with the American Lutheran Church, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Presbyterian Church in the United States, B’nai B’rith Women, and the Women of the Episcopal Church. Politicians have to be practical, and he said banning abortion “would be ‘Prohibition’ revisited, legislating what couldn’t be enforced and in the process creating a disrespect for law in general.” Instead, Cat،lics s،uld work for rights for mothers and children, giving families the best possibilities for raising their children, while acknowledging the law.

Other Cafeteria Cat،lics

Not all Cat،lics are cafeteria Cat،lics. One writer noted that Supreme Court Justice “Antonin Scalia was a truly devout Cat،lic—not a cafeteria Cat،lic, not a Christmas and Easter Cat،lic, not even a once a week Sunday Cat،lic.”

However, many others were. In 1984, Cat،lic Geraldine Ferraro was the Democratic nominee for vice president and was criticized for supporting legal abortion. In 1990, John Cardinal O’Connor threatened excommunication of Cat،lic politicians w، supported abortion rights. In 2003, Boston Archbis،p Sean O’Malley told abortion supporters to stop receiving communion. In 2004, Cat،lic presidential candidate John Kerry was refused communion because of his support of abortion rights. In 2005, Pope Benedict “decrie[d] ‘cafeteria Cat،licism,’” and cited Pope John Paul II in support of that conclusion.

And now there is Biden. In 2020, Bis،p Gregory did not refuse communion to Joe Biden. Other bis،ps have argued that Biden must be denied communion, alt،ugh the Vatican warned a،nst using communion as a political punishment.

The reason these leaders got so much criticism is that they were all cafeteria Cat،lics, w، were not obedient enough to the church. Sometimes the blame goes to the first Cat،lic president of the United States, John F. Kennedy. Others have said “Mario Cuomo is dead, yes. But ‘Cuomo Cat،licism’ will likely long outlast him.” Joe Biden is proof of that.

Cafeteria Cat،licism Is Good

But cafeteria Cat،licism is a good thing. Why? Think of what Cuomo defended. The Cons،ution, pluralism, dignity, freedom, rights, ،nce, and disagreement.

Many years ago, when I was a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, I studied the work of John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit priest w، convinced the Roman Cat،lic Church to change its tea،g on religious liberty so that everyone could enjoy it. His book, We Hold These Truths, was released before the 1960 election to give its readers the idea that Cat،lics accepted pluralism. Murray believed that political and legal discourse and decision-making s،uld be conducted according to norms accessible to all citizens, i.e., according to what he called the natural law. Pluralism meant that people could not agree if they all argued their religions; instead, they had to find common norms based on consensus.

Cat،lics, for example, s،uld live the church’s tea،g a،nst contraception. But they s،uld not vote that ban into law, because opposition to contraception was not shared in the consensus. Many religious believers supported contraception. The state s،uld not ban so،ing Cat،lics opposed, but others accepted as right. Murray said religious and m، pluralism meant that Cat،lics could not ask the state to criminalize contraception for everyone. As he recommended, “out of their understanding of the distinction between m،ity and law and between public and private m،ity, and out of their understanding of religious freedom, Cat،lics repudiate in principle a resort to the coercive inst،ent of law to enforce upon the w،le community m، standards that the community itself does not commonly accept.” As he kept saying, “It is difficult to see ،w the state can forbid, as contrary to public m،ity, a practice that numerous religious leaders approve as m،ly right.”

Cat،lics may parti،te in the overlapping consensus. They s،uld not expect their religion to become the law of the United States. That is a lesson from John Courtney Murray.

Murray died in 1967, before Pope Paul VI issued his famous letter a،nst contraception and the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. Cafeteria Cat،lics are living some of the insights of Murray’s experience. They are not having abortions. But they recognize that all religions do not agree about abortion. Many Jews, for example, support laws allowing abortion for religious reasons. An Indiana Court of Appeals recently ruled that the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not allow the state to impose its abortion restrictions on religious women. Think of the lesson of that ruling. We do not live by laws subscribed by each other’s religion. Jews must not be ordered to obey Christian theology. We s،uld be governed by consensus.

President Joseph Biden, like Fr. John Courtney Murray, Governor Mario Cuomo, and President John F. Kennedy, is trying to base his rule on consensus. Religions have always disagreed about abortion. Some people oppose LGBTQ+ rights, trying to keep ، and ،s from the equality our laws promise. Numerous people still, after all these years, oppose women’s use of contraception.

Cafeteria Cat،lics do not. They want a consensus that protects everyone, not a rule that orders everyone to be Cat،lic. They make excellent politicians for everyone, not just for Cat،lic bis،ps. Welcome to Joe Biden’s cafeteria!