(RNS) When Vice President Joe Biden last week tweeted a photo of himself proudly officiating at the same-sex civil wedding of two White House staffers, it quickly became fodder for news stories and commentary both pro and con -- the latter by religious conservatives who thought Biden was betraying his Catholic faith and deserved a rebuke.
The Catholic hierarchy was notably quiet, however, until Friday (Aug. 5) when three leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops posted a statement clearly directed at Biden and criticizing him for presenting “a counter witness, instead of a faithful one founded in the truth.”
“When a prominent Catholic politician publicly and voluntarily officiates at a ceremony to solemnize the relationship of two people of the same-sex, confusion arises regarding Catholic teaching on marriage and the corresponding moral obligations of Catholics,” wrote Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the USCCB, who was joined by Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, N.Y., and Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski.
Malone is chair of the bishop's Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth and Wenski is chair of the bishop's Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
Biden, the first Catholic vice president of the U.S., came out in support of civil marriage for gays in 2012. President Barack Obama followed suit a few days later.
Though Biden seemed to be the obvious focus of Friday's USCCB statement, the three bishops were rather circumspect in their criticism.
Their statement was posted on Friday on the USCCB’s blog, and they did not mention the vice president by name. Five of the six paragraphs of the statement focused generally on church teachings against gay marriage and on the responsibilities of Catholics in public life to, in the words of Pope Francis, “defend and preserve the dignity of fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good.”
The three bishops cited Francis, who has been hailed for his welcoming approach to gays, highlighting the pontiff’s support for traditional Catholic teaching that marriage is a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman.
One reason for the relatively muted response is that Biden lives in the Archdiocese of Washington, which is led by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and bishops are supposed to leave decisions on how to deal with wayward members of the flock to the bishop in charge of each diocese.
It could be seen as a breach of church practice for other bishops or the USCCB as a whole to appear to be telling another bishop how to run his ministry.
As of Sunday (Aug. 7) Wuerl had not made a statement regarding Biden’s action. Several conservative Catholics and organizations have been pressuring Wuerl to take some sort of public action.
On the other hand, Wuerl -- like previous Washington archbishops -- would normally leave pastoral decisions on a government official to the bishop in that official's home diocese.
Biden is from Delaware and while he worships in Washington he is still technically under the jurisdiction of Wilmington Bishop Francis Malooly.
After Kurtz and the others published their blog post, Malooly sent the link to all of his priests saying: "I have spoken to and consulted with the leaders of our conference and completely concur with this statement."
Another possible reason for the low-key tone of the USCCB blog post is that church law does not necessarily provide for the kind of penalties that some of Biden’s critics might want.
In a column following the news of Biden’s action, Edward Peters, a canon lawyer at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, wrote that the vice president “went out of his way to act with contempt” for church teaching and “is daring the church to do anything about it.”
But Peters noted that presiding at a same-sex marriage does not incur excommunication under current canon law; he said it would be up to Wuerl or the pope to issue legislation “making such officiating an excommunicable crime.”
He also wrote that Biden’s action was not necessarily heresy, either, nor would it clearly violate other canon laws.
Peters said that in his view the most appropriate response would be to deny Communion to Biden, who regularly attends Mass. Such an action is provided for under Canon 915, which directs ministers to withhold that sacrament from those who are “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin.”
Some Catholics have frequently argued that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights as well as gay rights should be denied Communion under Canon 915, but bishops have been reluctant to take what is viewed as a drastic step.
Most bishops -- and Wuerl would be among them -- also prefer to deal with these matters privately with the public figure in question, and they note that the responsibility for making such a call is up to the bishop, not the USCCB or outside groups.
Biden reportedly secured the authority from a Washington, D.C., court to conduct the marriage of staffers Brian Mosteller and Joe Mahshie. He conducted the ceremony at the vice president’s official residence, the Naval Observatory, on Monday afternoon.