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The public politics of Catholic clergy’s displayed progression: when is social engagement too much?

Sheila DeBonis
Sep 1 · 9 min read
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Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

A pastor at Lexington Catholic Community caused quite a stir when he endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden in his current presidential bid. It even prompted an indirect response from Boston Archdiocese Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who said:

“The Catholic community has the right to expect the priests of the Archdiocese and those entrusted with handing on the faith to be clear and unequivocal on the Church’s teaching concerning respect and protection for life from the first moment of conception to natural death. This teaching is of the highest priority for the Church. [Clergy and staff] may not endorse or oppose candidates for election or political parties.”

The pastor, Msgr. Paul Garrity, said in a lengthy Facebook post, “I am pro-life and I believe in a woman’s right to choose. I will vote for Joe Biden for president because I believe that Joe Biden is pro-life like me. I believe that any woman who becomes pregnant should have the right to choose to give birth to her baby.” His post can be viewed in full here:

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Garrity’s statement, Courtesy of The Boston Pilot

While Biden is a pro-choice candidate, Garrity cites the “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” article from the United States Council of Catholic Bishops to influence his decision, urging we Catholics should not be “single issue voters.” While Biden may “support abortion,” as The Boston Pilot puts it, it seems both Biden and Garrity note that some expectant mothers face poverty and hardships during pregnancy. Garrity sites that a mother needs “people around her to support her,” “confidence,” “trust,” and “freedom.” Many critics both in the comments of his post and in the Pilot article following the incident assert this language means Garrity is “anti-life” or endorses abortion, but he responds that this is untrue.

“I am totally against legalized abortion. I am committed to upholding Church teaching regarding the sanctity of life from the moment of conception until natural death,” he wrote in an apology post after deleting his initial one.
Instead, it seems Garrity wants to enable the pro-life movement and live in a world where conceiving a child amid irresolute conditions is not a life sentence of irresolute conditions. Simply put, he wants to give more reason for parents to make pro-life decisions. An assumed redeemed morality is not worth it for many parents if it means continued homelessness, addiction, abuse, grief from relatives and friends, unstable professional and educational goals, among a multitude of other problems. If abortion is a sin, it is a small price to pay compared to a host of hardships.

Still, it’s understandable why Garrity’s remarks ruffled feathers. By sharing his opinion on such a public sphere, he risks alienating his parishioners or colleagues who do not share the same opinion. Regardless, even if they do share his opinion, many do not feel politics are an appropriate topic to mix with religion. This may be true, but often it is inevitable. After all, Christianity came about through politics. The Feast Day of St. John the Baptist happened Saturday, and his demise came about through his criticism of the morality of his monarchs. King Herod had an affair with his brother’s wife, Herodias, and she divorced to marry Herod. Jesus’ entire execution was a result of a corrupt and insecure regime. The Roman Empire feared that Jesus would usurp the Caesar’s power, so he was given an unjust trial and the most agonizing form of death penalty available.

Yet, politics is often unavoidable in religious discussions, as both subjects intricately determine and interpret our lifestyles. Both are humanities and social studies. Two different pedagogies who dictate our values are bound to intertwine.

As for Jesus’ political opinions, he certainly had some, but they are sparse, and he often avoids them in extra-canon and canon. No doubt he and his family were upset at having to flee Bethlehem because their ruler wanted firstborn male infants killed. And he disliked capitalism among religious settings, disliked the amount of tariffs the Empire collected (though befriended Matthew regardless), disliked corporal punishment and death penalty, and saw the injustice in the Roman court and legal system (but still urged his followers to forgive the officials and avoid retaliation). Jesus, while uninvolved in politics, was by no means apolitical. He did, however, seek to bring conservative and liberal views together, as he cared deeply about achieving empathy. “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me” (Matthew 25:40, adapted for the hymn “Whatsoever You Do” composed by Willard Jabusch, copyright 1966).

Biden, himself, has evolved his opinion on reproductive rights. He initially supported the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, which forbids Medicaid coverage for abortion unless circumstances are dire. He had believed abortion access was robust enough to start and Medicaid needn’t assist it, but was mistaken. While he now wishes to codify Roe v. Wade, he had been critical when the initial 1973 Supreme Court decision was passed. Like Garrity, Biden is also a Roman Catholic, and he often wrestles with his social and spiritual doctrine, sometimes amending his language dependent on audience (from a 2015 interview with Jesuit magazine America):

What I’m not prepared to do is to impose a precise view that is born out of my faith on other people who are equally God-fearing, equally as committed to life, equally as committed to the sanctity of life. I’m prepared to accept that at the moment of conception there’s human life and being, but I’m not prepared to say that to other God-fearing, non-God-fearing people that have a different view.

Still, there are much more instances of Biden grappling with reproductive access. Thus, Garrity’s support of Biden makes sense, as both seem to have robust and nuanced takes on the issue. They are not alone, as American Catholic support of abortions are nearly 3 out of 5, (56% to be exact), according to a report from Pew Research Center last year. “I’m probably a victim, or a product, however you want to phrase it, of my background,” Biden said in 1982 regarding a proposed amendment that would allow separate states to overturn Roe v. Wade. His choice to support it was “the single most difficult vote I’ve cast as a U.S. senator.” The bill was passed in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but did not make it to Senate, though it returned the following year and Biden then voted against it.

Jacqueline Tetraul, the reporter who penned the piece on Cardinal O’Malley’s response to the outcry, notes that Garrity only cited part of paragraph 42 in “Forming Consciences of Faithful Citizenship” from the United States Council of Catholic Bishops. The full text reads:

As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet if a candidate’s position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support.

While the latter of the two “evil acts” listed are clear or semi-clear blights, within this section alone it is unclear why legal abortion is an “intrinsically evil act.” All of these can be such, but of course, must be viewed contextually as any social issue. Note I do see that the “redefining marriage” part can allude to same-sex marriage and marriage equality, but is not a direct condemnation. For this, I applaud the text, as this language covers several matrimonial disasters, such as child marriage, forced arrangements, marriage of convenience, “shotgun” situations (where a couple, especially the bride, is pressured into marrying during an early point in their pregnancy to evade suspicion that their infant was conceived out of wedlock). among others.

(Please note that I do recognize that arranged marriages, convenience marriages, or “shotgun” marriages can be successful or healthy in some circumstances, but it’s dependent on the couple’s consent and willingness. While child marriages can be long-term, I do not believe they are healthy if one or more parties cannot consent legally.)

Still, I condemn the USCCB’s paragraph because it allows some parishioners to see this as same-sex unions. The Church too often keeps up appearances rather than taking a stand on what is morally sound. One progressive principle I fortunately do see the Church defending is immigration, a section of paragraph 81 of the same document:

Comprehensive reform is urgently necessary to fix a broken immigration system and should include a broad and fair legalization program with a path to citizenship; a work program with worker protections and just wages; family reunification policies; access to legal protections, which include due process procedures; refuge for those fleeing persecution and violence; and policies to address the root causes of migration.

Still, the introductory letter at the start of the document downplays abortion in comparison to other fatalities, “At the same time, we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty” (pages 5–6). Thus, with consideration of this piece, Garrity’s defense of not being a “single issue voter” in a statement to the Catholic News Agency on August 25 remains valid.

Perhaps the infamy of the Catholic Church lies in its tradition. Decades to centuries ago, it had decided certain practices are sinful, and while over time the view in these practices evolve, but ultimately are still seen as sinful, but muted. The Church may have adapted very well over the last hundred years regarding sciences and have enough hospitals or educational institutions with vast science programming to prove it, but other miscellaneous subjects like birth control, abortion, LGBTQ rights, masturbation/pleasure, female ordination, or mysticism/fantasy are still scrutinized.

There is not enough examination as to why the Church continues to stand against abortion. People like Garrity or Biden do recognize having an unplanned baby amid poverty is a challenge and recognize why a decision like termination would be made, but still, why is it still deemed sin? Indeed, I suppose it is ending a life, but we are made in God’s image, and he, too, has ended lives, like all of humanity during the Great Flood in Noah’s ark, or the kingdoms of Babylon, Sodom, Gomorrah, or teenagers, getting into mundane trouble like teasing a bald man or playing with fire.

A few saints and prophets, too, were soldiers. Moses, Joshua, David, Samson, St. Joan of Arc, and St. Ignatius of Loyola to name a few. Why should a woman feel guilty about removing an undeveloped mass from her body when one of God’s most devoted Israelites, Samson, shamelessly tore apart an adult lion with his bare hands? The Ten Commandments is a great guide to live by, but the trouble is it isn’t supported in full by some of its biggest figureheads. The defense of abortion can sway back to these inconsistencies.

The problem with the church today is it often includes sparse, vague language that condemns some practices to appease stubborn people. Formal church bodies, like the Vatican or the USCCB, are often passive “yes men” who do not correct congregants’ behavior and prejudices. Still, I don’t think the Church is actively trying to condemn new social norms, but simply wish to stay consistant. This passiveness hurts us, and leaving many followers unsure if they belong, and I am often among them.

So too is Biden, who, as mentioned previously, felt to be a “victim of [his] background” when supporting the opportity for state repeal of Roe v. Wade. This suggests he felt cornered and pressured to bow to his doctrine. If a doctrine is worthy, no one should feel pressured to bow to it. It’s far time we open up the dialogue of twenty-first century norms into the congregant space. For too long we’ve either unethusiastly nodded along to prolife material that make us uneasy, or simply kept mum. While we don’t have to be as vocal as Garrity in our thoughts, it’s important we stay in the conversation with our clergy and those associated in order to reflect our true standing.

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