President Biden, Chinese Communists and a very old division in the Church

Aug 4, 2021

The knives are out for President Joe Biden as a Catholic. Some commentators have drawn the comparison between how some (most?) US bishops are reacting to the President for his approach to legislation on abortion in their country and the controversy in the early Church called the Donatist controversy.

That ‘controversy” came down to some early Christians challenging the Catholic credentials of bishops whom some believed had so compromised themselves to avoid being killed by the Roman Imperial authorities as to invalidate the sacraments they celebrated.

The Donatist Christians believed these clerics had shown such cowardice in their cooperation with the evil the Roman Empire was inflicting on the early Christians that those early Christians who didn’t stand up and contend with the Imperial authorities had lost their right to be recognized and respected as leaders of the Christian community.

This rigid approach has a contemporary echo in a conflict having its way among Catholics in China today. Operating as all good Communists have ever done, the Chinese variety got to work very soon after Mao’s victory in the civil war in 1949 and set up a Government controlled agency that divided the Church in China, controlled the appointment of bishops, the ordination of priests and the daily conduct of the Church’s life.

For the Donatists, the resolution of the issue became simple – expel the sinful cowards from the Christian community because the sacraments they celebrate can’t be effective when they are celebrated by corrupt public sinners.

The answer developed by the greatest theologian of the first millennium – St. Augustine of Hippo – pulled the carpet out from under this hard line: the efficacy of the sacraments depends not on the virtue or holiness of the celebrant but on the workings of God’s grace. This was the theological resolution of the “Donatist controversy”.

It might seem that advocates of this approach have fixed the problem of how sinful cowards get their status restored. And that’s what some people think they’ve done to restore the Catholic credentials of President Biden.

But I don’t think so for one simple reason: I don’t think the accusation against Biden – that he’s a sinful coward – has been established.

Donatists were Christians who lived in the region of the Church of Carthage in North Africa from the fourth to the sixth centuries AD. They argued that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid.

Heaven help us if this view prevailed! Donatists saw clergy not ready to accept martyrdom rather than be compromised in their beliefs by Roman Imperial authorities as being people who were so morally decrepit so as to forfeit their right to celebrate effective sacraments. Why? Because God could not possibly use such soiled channels to communicate grace.

Donatists thought themselves to be superior Christians to those who had compromised themselves during a time of imperial persecution. Donatists argued that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid.

Plainly Biden is neither a bishop nor a sacramental minister. But his enemies in the US Catholic Church believe he is not even entitled to receive the sacraments because he is soft on legislation that would criminalize abortion, those who have them and those who procure them. Biden is accused of “cooperation with evil” by his enemies and is therefore a public sinner.

Biden’s view is that he is a Catholic and is persuaded by the Church’s teaching on the ethics of abortion and so opposes it. But, as a legislator in a secular and pluralistic State, he does not believe it is his job to legislate the Church’s morality for all (mostly non-Catholics) to abide by under the force of law and see to the prosecution of those who disagree with him on having an abortion or procuring them.

Personally, I think this way of reasoning for finding why a Catholic must legislate against the provision of legal abortions or of outlawing them – and then reaching a conclusion about the moral status of President Biden’s position – is confusing and ultimately very weak.

Firstly, it concedes without close examination or argument that Biden is actually guilty of a sin that excludes him from the community of the faithful. What he is accused of in traditional Catholic terminology is “cooperation with evil” by allowing State permitted abortions.

But is he really? Or is he doing what Catholics always have to do on this and many other issues? And what is that?

Catholics – and indeed all people of conscience – must come to a conclusion about what is the moral step to take when there are competing Values or moral priorities claiming allegiance. In this instance, the competing “goods” are the steadfast opposition to abortion and then the competing “good” which is the right people have to disagree about moral values and not be punished for it.

In Catholic discourse, the contest is between those who believe in moral absolutes that are universally binding and those who believe that others are entitled to see things differently to Catholics and should not be punished because they do.

This is exactly the issue that divides the Catholic Church in China: are the only “good” Chinese Catholics those who oppose and contend with the Chinese Communist Party and its government in the PRC and those who say the Communists are not going to disappear and we (Catholics in China) need to find a modus vivendi with them.

Finding the modus vivendi in both circumstances comes down to the exercise of conscience, discernment and being courageous and resolute about the outcomes of the discernment because no authentic outcome of the discernment will meet with universal or even majority acclaim

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