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During an interview with America magazine, Vice President and possible presidential contender Joseph R. Biden confirmed that he had read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, but confessed difficulty in reconciling all that Pope Francis had taught within the document, including the Pontiff’s words on abortion and life issues.
Both Biden and the interviewer, Jesuit Father Matt Malone, America’s editor in chief, speculated that climate change will be among the themes Pope Francis will discuss when he addresses a joint meeting of Congress Thursday, and Biden seemed easier at that prospect.
Biden, a Catholic who recently spoke with Stephen Colbert about how his faith sustained him through the recent death of his son, Beau, expressed joyful anticipation of Francis’ historic address to Congress. As vice president, Biden will preside, sitting behind the Pontiff and next to House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican who is also Catholic.
In the half-hour interview with Father Malone, Biden said he found Pope Francis to be “the embodiment of the Catholic social doctrine I was raised with. The idea that everyone is entitled to dignity, that the poor should be given special preference, that you have an obligation to reach out and be inclusive.”
As an example of how he sees Francis embodying that social doctrine, Biden cited “the encyclical on climate change,” Laudato Si’.
“It’s all about, we have responsibilities, we have to husband this planet,” he said. “I am really excited by the whole world is getting to see what are the basic essential elements of what constitutes Catholicism. We can argue about some of the de fide doctrine that’s been declared, but this is below it and above it. This is something much larger.”
But if care for the environment is a non-negotiable, protection of the unborn is Church teaching that Biden himself says he accepts, but cannot impose on non-Catholics:
I’m prepared to accept as a matter of faith—my wife and I, my family—the issue of abortion. … But 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 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, or non-God-fearing people that have a different view.
In Laudato Si’, Francis wrote:
Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.”
In the interview, Biden acknowledged that Catholicism calls abortion “always wrong.”
“I don’t want to start a theological discussion. I’ll get in trouble,” Biden said. “It’s above my pay grade.”
The phrase called to mind then-Sen. Barack Obama’s response in 2008 to a question during a debate with Sen. John McCain, the Republican from Arizona. Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church asked the two presidential candidates: “At what point does a baby get human rights?”
Obama responded that the answer was “above my pay grade.”
John Burgeris news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.