He Who Defines the Terms Wins the Debate: A Response to John Gehring

On September 2, Commonweal published an article by Gehring entitled Who’s a ‘Fake’ Catholic?[1] The article itself discusses the “faith” of the Democrat Presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden. Gehring’s central point is that recent (and, by extension, not so recent) questions surrounding the “faith” of Joe Biden are not “fair.” The tagline for the article is explicit: “It’s fair to challenge Biden on his positions, but not to question his faith.”

While reading the article, I noticed a glaring omission: there is no definition of the word “faith.” An old adage states that “he who defines the terms wins the debate.” Thus, for Gehring to omit the definition of “faith” is a glaring oversight as it is a necessary component to the discussion.

To be clear, the definition of Faith is: “both a gift of God and a human act by which the believer gives personal adherence to God who invites his response, and freely assents to the whole truth that God has revealed….Faith is both a theological virtue given by God as grace, and an obligation which flows from the first commandment of God (CCC, glossary, 878-879, cf. paragraphs 26, 142, 150, 1814, 2087).

Moreover, precisely what kind of faith (human or divine/Catholic) is not really all that clear. Some phrases employed by Gehring that bear upon “faith” are: “Biden’s faith,” “challenging [Biden’s] right to call himself a Catholic…,” “[Biden’s] personal faith,” and “Biden’s commitment to his faith.” What is, perhaps, one of the most central arguments in Gehring’s article is his assertion that “Questioning an individual’s deepest commitments to his faith is religious slander.” I’ll return to this particular assertion later.

In reading these references, what I don’t see is any clear and direct acknowledgement to “the Catholic Faith” and the necessary adherence to it that is required by all who call themselves “Catholic.” This adherence, to be clear, is referred to as the “obedience of faith” in the Catechism (143-144).

Because of the lack of a proper definition of “faith,” Gehring’s argument is impotent. It lacks a certain convicting power and drive towards a proper end or telos, in the philosophical sense of this term. Gehring’s lack of this particular philosophical foundation in his article is very revealing. It indicates a much larger problem of the philosophical foundations of Western thought after the 17th Century wherein natural science was divorced from natural philosophy (naturwissenschaften and geistenwissenschaften).

Had Gehring considered this matter, he would have seen that viewing the Catholic Faith in terms of telos necessarily entails comparing Biden’s “positions” (to use Gehring’s term) with the doctrines of the Catholic Church. By Gehring’s own admission, Biden falls short of not a few of those doctrines, abortion being one such example named by Gehring. Undeterred, however, by requisite self-examinations on his philosophical foundations, Gehring appeals to “interconnected social justice issues” that he further says are “at play.” In other words, philosophy is irrelevant, let’s focus on social justice (so called)!

Other than the obvious problem that such dispensing of philosophy causes, Gehring is, on this last point, summoning the ghost of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (†1996) with his famous “seamless garment” hypothesis. While Bernardin’s hypothesis is not beyond question, for our purposes I’d like to point out that Gehring’s reference omits mentioning taxis, or hierarchy of matters. Within the taxis of the so-called “life issues,” abortion is at the top of the list. Gehring’s appeal, then, to “interconnected social justice issues” is a classic “bait and switch” that takes focus off the central issues that enjoy precedence.

Gehring, it seems to me, largely comes from a background that is a bit secular in nature and does not take from its starting point proper philosophy and the tenets of the Catholic Faith. This latter impression comes out most strongly in Gehring’s omission of defining “faith.” Without this important definition, the discussion turns amorphous and quite malleable to whatever Gehring wants it to mean.

There is a standard of Catholic Faith. By that standard any political candidates can be judged by Catholics who adhere to that standard as to the candidates’ suitability for political office. It is, therefore, not “religious slander,” as Gehring calls it, to question a candidate’s adherence to divine and Catholic Faith if he or she claims to be a Catholic. The enterprise of weighing a candidate’s professed Catholicism against the doctrines and tenets of the holy Faith is natural in that it is an exercise of man’s God-given ability to reason (in this case, to weigh a thing against its end).

In conclusion, then, Gehring’s philosophical foundations are problematic and his amorphous references to “faith” present a non-standard to which people cannot rally without falling headlong into ruin. Gehring is correct that there are many issues requiring treatment within contemporary American society. As a former teacher of the Church’s social doctrine, I am happy to agree with him on this salient point, perhaps with some reservation. Unfortunately, where I must explicitly differ with him is in our approach to these matters. A small error in the beginning, as Aquinas and Aristotle point out, leads to larger ones down the line,[2] and I think we see a shining example of this in Gehring’s article.

[1] I have not heard of Gehring prior to reading this article and the biography at its end indicates some impressive credentials, including some prior work with the USCCB.

[2] Cf. the Prologue to Aquinas’ De ente et essentia.