Why didn’t Catholic bishops call Biden out by name?

I’m on the road right now, in Montana, and haven’t had a chance to catch Saturday Night Live yet but apparently in the comedy show’s skit on the Vice Presidential debate, the Joe Biden character said:

“I accept the teachings of the Catholic Church. But then, like most Catholics, I ignore them and do what I want.”

Hardy har har. The joke was in reference to a portion of the debate where the moderator treated abortion as a question of faith and then asked both candidates to explain — as Catholics — their position on abortion. During the answer to that question, Republican candidate Paul Ryan brought up the threats to religious liberty posed by the Health and Human Services mandate requiring individuals and organizations to provide health insurance coverage that may violate the teachings of their faith.

In response, Biden said something most interesting (according to this Washington Post transcript):

With regard to the assault on the Catholic church, let me make it absolutely clear, no religious institution, Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic Social Services, Georgetown Hospital, Mercy Hospital, any hospital, none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact.

Well, like almost everything uttered by politicians, that’s not a fact. And a few hours later, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called him out. Religion News Service had a story that some people brought to our attention:

In a rare public rebuke, Catholic bishops chided Vice President Joe Biden for saying during Thursday’s vice-presidential debate that Catholic hospitals and institutions will not be forced to provide contraception coverage to employees.

Without mentioning Biden by name, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the “inaccurate” statement “made during the Vice Presidential debate” was “not a fact.”

I think some people thought RNS was having fun with scare quotes again. But this is just quote-quoting it. What’s really interesting about this statement from the bishops isn’t just that they called Biden out for lying. They did it without using his name and in a quite passive manner. The quote mechanism used above conveys that.

There was a bit of a problem with inconsistency in using such an approach later in the story, however:

The White House later offered a complex compromise that would allow insurance companies, rather than employers, to pay for the contraceptive coverage. Critics — including the bishops — say it doesn’t go far enough.

“They will have to pay for these things, because the premiums that the organizations (and their employees) are required to pay will still be applied, along with other funds, to cover the cost of these drugs and surgeries,” the bishops’ conference said.

It’s true that the White House claims that its compromise is not a shell game but rather a totally legit way to keep employers from being too involved in paying for things they oppose. Claims should be put forth as just that, however. It’s easy to say that “The White House later offered a change that it says would ….” There’s no reason to adopt the White House talking point. Just say what it is. Obviously people opposed to this mandate think it’s no compromise at all and that the claim is laughable — that the underlying issue is unchanged. So just let them make their case, too — as this story does above.

Anyway, a good story that lays out the bishops’ view and the curious way they made the statement. That might even be worth more coverage — why did the bishops play the passive game of saying some mysterious person at the debate erred? Why did they not call out Biden by name? Religion reporters definitely noticed this. Perhaps there’s some coverage of this I haven’t seen yet. Of course, I also haven’t seen mainstream coverage of another Biden claim on abortion. Many Catholic sites and individuals have lambasted his claim that the basis for Catholic opposition to abortion is de fide. There’s no reason that this interesting debate — along with those about whether the Catholic religion requires particular legislative approaches when it comes to care for the poor — can’t get more mainstream coverage. It really lies at the heart of these important political differences on how society can best protect the lives of the unborn and how society can best take care of the weakest among us.

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  • I don’t know why the issue of Biden claiming that it is de fide that life begins at conception doesn’t get more play in the MSM, except that it revolves around a technical theological term requiring an explanation. And that making that explanation would mean explaining the basis in science and reason for the Catholic church’s position. And that means the reporter would have to expose himself (or herself) to a rationale that might undermine preconceived notions. But I wish they would. *sigh*

    As far as the bishops go… maybe it has something to do with their nonprofit status and not taking sides on candidates during elections, as opposed to advocating for a specific position on an issue. At any rate, their response is not about the candidate and how he misrepresented the situation, but about the clarifying the situation itself.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Why didn’t they call him out by name? I don’t think it’s hard to figure out. USCCB says, “Vice President Joe Biden said….” That afternoon, the USCCB General Counsel gets a call from the Justice Department or the IRS: “Mr. Picarello? This is the IRS. We have a few questions for you about this press release that went out this morning. Would you care to come down to our office, please?”

    The important thing was that they publicly corrected the lie. As far as the person who spoke that lie, I’m guessing that they’re looking at it as a pastoral issue that needs to be dealt with by one of his bishops — either Cardinal Donald Wuerl or Bishop Francis Malooly in Wilmington. Will either one do it? Doubtful, but that’s the right way to go about it.

  • deacon john m. bresnahan

    Another possible reason the statement was worded carefully is that experience has shown that if Catholic bishops come on too strong it becomes counter-productive at the ballot box. This has happened time and again here in Mas. When the bishops speak strongly it stirs up the powerful streak of anti-Catholic bigotry that lies just below the surface in our society–in spite of the First Amendment.

  • sari

    “When the bishops speak strongly it stirs up the powerful streak of anti-Catholic bigotry that lies just below the surface in our society–in spite of the First Amendment.”

    The first part of this sentence is clear, but it’s not clear how people voting against their perception of the Catholic Church has anything to do with the First Amendment.

    Please explain.

  • Dan Crawford

    You might to explain also the journalism issue – is the “failure” of the Catholic hierarchy to call out Joe Biden a journalistic matter? Is it a journalistic issue that the same hierarchy has kept Ryan’s name out of any critique of his Medicare “plan”?

    • mollie

      The journalism issue is whether or not it’s worth exploring why the Catholic hierarchy didn’t use Biden’s name. I happen to share the view of some above — they wanted to focus on the underlying error and not be tarred with playing politics. But that’s just speculation on my part. I think it would be interesting for a story to look into that.
      As for your second question, I think it would probably fit in the same category. The bishops may not be as political as the PR firms (the same ones behind the “Nuns on the Bus” bus-tour against Ryan’s budget …) claim they are.

  • deiseach

    I think they avoided mentioning him by name because then it would be reported as “U.S. bishops slam Vice-President Biden” and “Bishops support Romney-Ryan ticket in attack on Biden”, and not address the question of the mandate.

    The Vice-President seems to have some misconceptions about reproductive health services in general; he made a statement at a campaign rally in Wisconsin:

    “And now these guys pledge that they are going to defund Planned Parenthood, which under law cannot perform any abortion,” said Biden. “You heard it last night again.”

    This later had to be clarified as to what he really meant:

    “The Vice President said Planned Parenthood under law couldn’t perform abortions while campaigning in Wisconsin. A spokesperson says he was referring to federal funding, which the ban only applies to. ”

    So either he really thinks PP doesn’t perform abortions or he was confused about the difference between receiving federal funding for services and what they can use that funding for, or – but that would involve me being so uncharitable as to assign deliberate falsehood to him, which I have no basis for doing.

  • I think that the more basic reason that the USCCB did not use his name is that there is a long tradition in the Catholic Church, practiced by Rome and widely emulated by bishops here, of not naming individuals whose policies you are criticizing. This has nothing to do with the tax code, although that is certainly a cautionary factor as well.
    Historically you can find examples where the Vatican took this to such an extreme that later historians claim the pope never made a statement at all. A classic example is an encyclical of Pius XI, Mit Brennenberg Sorge (With Burning Anxiety), which was written in German and smuggled into Germany in 1937. Anyone can tell that it is a condemnation of Naziism and Nazi racial policies. But because it nowhere contains the words “Hitler” “Nazi” or even “Jews,” there are alleged scholars today who claim the Catholic Church was silent about persecution of the Jews. There are many other, far more recent examples.While the issue at hand is in no way comparable to the genocide back then, the tradition of not naming the objects of criticism continues full force today. If you get the daily bulletins from the Vatican Information Service, you will find that they sometimes respond to problems involving specific individuals inside and outside the church, yet those individuals are never named. I am pasting in the most recent example below. I don’t know the background, but obviously it is a response to a specific group or groups of “knights” that claim to have papal recognition. The offenders are never named:


    Vatican City, 16 October 2012 (VIS) – In response to frequent requests for information concerning the recognition by the Holy See of Equestrian Orders dedicated to the saints or to holy places, the Secretariat of State considers it opportune to reiterate what has already been published, namely that, other than its own Equestrian Orders (the Supreme Order of Christ, the Order of the Golden Spur, the Pian Order, the Order of Saint Gregory the Great, and the Order of Pope Saint Sylvester), the Holy See recognises and supports only the Sovereign Military Order of Malta – also known as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta – and the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. The Holy See foresees no additions or innovations in this regard.

    All other orders, whether of recent origin or mediaeval foundation, are not recognised by the Holy See. Furthermore, the Holy See does not guarantee their historical or juridical legitimacy, their ends or organisational structures.

    To avoid any possible doubts, even owing to illicit issuing of documents or the inappropriate use of sacred places, and to prevent the continuation of abuses which may result in harm to people of good faith, the Holy See confirms that it attributes absolutely no value whatsoever to certificates of membership or insignia issued by these groups, and it considers inappropriate the use of churches or chapels for their so-called “ceremonies of investiture”.

  • Of course, Ann is right. It’s called Vaticanese. Is it a little weird? Yes. But of course when the USCCB sent a series of letters to Congress complaining that Paul Ryan’s budget failed a basic moral test, his name did not appear.