Against a New Donatism

Here we are. The dust has settled. America has survived another inauguration. While this one may have made us sweat a little more than usual, we’ve come out on the other end of the tunnel with a new administration and new president with new promises for the country and her people. What makes this president so interesting? Biden ran on a campaign for decency. More boldly, President Biden ran with the promise to “restore the soul of America.” In many speaking events, Biden depends on his Catholic faith shaping his worldview. In one such event, he even quoted the Holy Father’s newest encyclical. Most Catholics don’t even know what encyclicals are. In his acceptance speech, he even quoted the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings” saying “it captures the faith that sustains me.” Before the inauguration began, Biden invited partisan leaders to join him for morning mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in D.C. Following that, the former President of Georgetown offered the opening prayer at the inaugural event. The priest in question did not invoke the Holy Trinity (the sign of the cross) when beginning the prayer but if you watch the video Biden instinctually crosses himself at the beginning. During his address, the President quoted both the Holy Father and the City of God by none other than St. Augustine. Is this the integralism that so many Trads have longed for?

Well the answer is obviously no. Biden’s policies on abortion and LGBTQ+ issues stand at odds with Catholic Social Teaching on many points. One must do a cursory read of the Catechism and the USCCB’s voting with a conscience guide to see that several key points of Biden’s platform stand at odds with Catholic anthropology. I have heard from passing sources that Biden has remarked on his support for legal abortion as a consequence of the failure of the Church to care for people. I can’t find a source that verifies this, nor is this the paper to deal with that sentence, but I did want to provide some statement that shows Biden is aware of the differences between his party’s platform and that which the Church asks its members to believe. All of this has led many to criticize Biden even referring to himself as a Catholic given his failures to incorporate Catholic Social Teaching into his platform. Which leads to the topic being examined in this paper. When does one cease to be a Catholic? Does it hinge on checking all the boxes on a theology exam? 

To answer this question, it is best to first check the Catechism to get a look at what the Church has said on the matter. Baptism is the sacrament that brings a soul into the communion of Christ’s Church and makes them an adopted son of God. Self-explanatory, most churches with a Sacramental theology know this. This key part to our question though is that baptism leaves an indelible mark on the soul. Which means that once a soul is baptized it is forever changed. No sin can ever remove the mark of baptism from a soul. While a person’s sin may halt the growth in grace which comes from baptism, the sacrament is a one and done deal. So, whether we like it or not, President Biden was baptized and is thus a member of Christ’s body. Now what of his beliefs? 

Well I scanned the list of dogmas of the Church, according to most listings I found there are 255 infallibly declared dogmas of the Church that a Catholic must hold in faith. The Church’s teaching on abortion is not on that list. Now, obviously there are plenty of things that a Catholic must believe that are not included on the list of dogma. There are many doctrines that logically flow forth from the dogma that must be held to as well. But, heresy is a slippery word and the definitions of it are far stricter than most would know. Michael Lofton and Trent Horn did an informative episode on the Counsel of Trent(as far as I am concerned) in at least defining what being a heretic actually means. Biden, policy-wise, obviously errs on the matters of sexuality and life issues. Perhaps he personally disagrees with them, which is a phrase heard by many pro-abortion Catholics. Yet, no bull of excommunication has been laid at the Oval Office. Nor is supporting abortion an excommunicatable offense. It is a mortal sin to do so and does bar you from communion, but that is not the same has being excommunicated. Why do I bring any of this up?

There are far better canonists than I that could perhaps delve into the complexities of the relationship between a pro-abortion Catholic politicians and the Church. This information was simply to provide a brief overview that it is not as easy as just saying “Biden isn’t Catholic” because for all intents and purposes, he is. In all of his flaws and sins just as we are. Where Biden falls in the matter of policy/intellectual assent, how often do we fall in the realm of sin and practice meanwhile maintaining airtight doctrine? We must resist the temptation (however valid it may be) to simply throw Biden under the bus and say he’s not one of us. As examined above, Biden is most likely in a state of mortal sin which is vastly different than the Church formally excommunicating him or him committing an act that by its very nature excommunicates you. He’s in the same boat as someone with a habitual porn habit. We must be careful that we do not develop a new donatism. A church of the doctrinally and morally perfect. As Oscar Wilde said, “...the Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone…” Before everyone throws me under the bus for “defending” Biden, we must also look at why everyone is freaking out over Biden’s claim of religious belief. Scandal.

Let’s take the sin of masturbation/pornography as an example. When someone abuses porn and masturbates, that is between them, God, and the FBI agent watching through their camera. It is not necessarily scandalous as it’s behind closed doors and unless publicly admitted no one really knows. People go on with their lives and assume that person is an averagely practicing Catholic. Biden on the other hand has now just become the leader of the Free World. Not only that, he’s the second American president that is Roman Catholic. People are watching him to see what he does and says. When Biden calls himself a Catholic, and then supports legislation that is radically opposed to Catholic teaching, it causes scandal and confusion amongst the faithful. If he were just John Doe it would mean nothing, no one is paying attention to him. But he’s the president one, and a Catholic one so he claims. St. James argues that teachers will be judged more harshly. To those who are given much, more is expected. It’s more important that Biden be solid on his policy than the average layman on the pews, although both should be working to submit to the teachings of Christ and His Church.

So what’s the point of all this? This paper is an attempt to serve as a middle ground between two extremes. Where one side wishes to throw Biden out with the pagans and the other wishes to hoist Biden up as an exemplar of a “new” Catholicism. The answer isn’t so easy. Biden, whether one likes it or not, is a Catholic, and a practicing one at that. Just like any other sinner that falls into mortal sin, but at the same time he is a public figure who represents Catholicism, maybe not by his choice but it is how he is viewed, and he must be judged and corrected when he errs, just as one must be judged and corrected when they err morally. The one side resurrects the heresy of Donatism, and the other side commits the heresy of doctrinal evolution. 

I am a sinner and so is he,

But our Good Lord died for we.

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