Ex-Vice President Joe Biden is poised to become the second Roman Catholic president in the 244-year history of the United States. Biden is openly observant, from the black smudge at his forehead on Ash Wednesday to the rosary he clutched during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The ex-Veep often carries with him rosary beads that belonged to his son Beau, who died in 2015.
Biden is facing very different challenges of faith from John F. Kennedy 60 years ago. Kennedy had to go before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to argue his allegiance to Constitution over Vatican. Biden has faced opposition from the Catholic right, already furious at Pope Francis that he is a deficient, non-dogmatic Catholic.
Former Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput would turn Biden away at the communion rail, over his support of abortion and LGBTQ rights. Biden was denied communion at a South Carolina parish when campaigning there last year. “Public figures who identify as ‘Catholic’ give scandal to the faithful when receiving communion by creating the impression that the moral laws of the Church are optional,” Chaput argued in an article for the conservative journal First Things. (Chaput was notably denied a cardinal’s red hat by Pope Francis, normally a given for the Philadelphia post.)
Biden is “a Catholic in name only,” onetime Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz told the 2020 Republican Convention. (Holtz was rewarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Trump last week at the White House.) Others see opportunity, in the words of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Wilton Gregory, where he and Biden “can cooperate that reflect the social teachings of the church, knowing full well there are some areas where we won’t agree.”
Biden is a longtime parishioner at St. Joseph on the Brandywine parish in Greenville, Delaware. Gregory, the country’s first African American cardinal, will become the 46th president’s local bishop when he moves to the White House. The cardinal says the president will not be denied communion.
J. Kenneth Appleby wrote recently of Biden in the Jesuit magazine America: “His presidency will bring new opportunities for the government and the church to work together on issues important to Catholic social teaching, including immigration reform, refugee protection, anti-poverty measures, racial justice, climate change, international development, and global peace.”
What faith will Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., bring to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.? He recently delivered a personal summation that millions of American Catholics would recognize, saying: “My idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion. It’s not so much the Bible, the beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, or the prayers I learned. It’s the culture.”
The culture has helped Biden endure and persevere in times of trial, when his first wife and daughter were killed in a car crash soon after his election to the Senate and following the death of Beau Biden from brain cancer. The “Late Show” with Stephen Colbert offered Biden an unusual forum a few months after Beau’s death.
“My religion is just an enormous sense of solace,” he told Colbert. “What my faith has done is, it sort of takes everything about my life with my parents and my siblings and all the comforting things and all the good things that have happened, have happened around the culture of my religion and the theology of my religion — and I don’t know how to explain it more than that.”
Biden, 77, began his first term in college when John F. Kennedy was president. It was also the era of “the good pope,” St. John XXIII, who opened Catholicism to the modern world. “The way Biden looks at the world is very much influenced by the era of the two Johns,” Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne recently told National Catholic Reporter. “It was a time when Catholics were finally finding their place in American politics and obviously had an enormous pride in Kennedy’s election, and if you were a Democrat, as most Catholics were at the time, you found real comfort in John XXIII’s attitudes toward social justice and peace.”
Biden has changed his view of social issues in a way that has fit the fashions of the Democratic Party. The Catholic right, for whom abortion is THE social issue, has reacted with fury.
In 1977, during his first Senate term, Biden voted against compromise legislation that permitted Medicaid to fund abortions that included exceptions for victims of rape and incest, along with concerns for the life of the mother. He voted once more, in 1981, to remove the rape and incest exceptions. He would vote in 1983 to forbid federal workers from using health insurance to pay for abortion services.
By 2007, in a book prepared for his second presidential campaign, Biden was writing that he did not think he had “a right to impose my view on the rest of society, and said he would protect the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision. He has promised in the 2020 campaign to “codify” the 1973 decision, which legalized abortion across America.
As the Obama-Biden ticket prepared to seek reelection in 2012, the president’s thinking on same-sex marriage was officially “evolving.” In a career defining moment, Biden went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and said: “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights and all the civil liberties.”
The White House didn’t see it coming. President Obama hastily summoned “Good Morning America” co-host Robin Roberts and declared that his “evolution” was complete. Obama embraced marriage equality.
A great many American Catholics have also evolved, even though the church hierarchy has remained adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage. As Washington state prepared to vote in 2012, however, Catholics for Marriage Equality put 500 demonstrators on the lawn of Seattle’s St. James Cathedral. Catholic legislators were prominent in the crowd. National polls show Catholics support LGBTQ rights in higher percentages than the general population.
While saying the “soul of America” was at stake in the election, Biden has found himself drawn into a struggle for the soul of America’s Catholic Church.
Pope Francis has begun to put his stamp on the U.S. hierarchy with such prelates as Cardinals Gregory, Joseph Tobin in Newark, Blaise Cupich in Chicago, and popular, progressive San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy. The divisions among bishops can be seen in their reaction to the president-elect.
During the campaign, arch-reactionary Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, invited Biden to ask for forgiveness, saying: “As a bishop, I beg Mr. Biden to repent of his dissent from Catholic teaching on abortion and marriage for his own salvation and for the good of our country.” The conservative, highly political Eternal Word Television Network gave Biden treatment equivalent to Fox News. By contrast, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan sang Trump’s praises in a telephone session with Catholic leaders, and in a subsequent Fox News interview. Across the harbor, Newark’s Cardinal Tobin told a college audience: “I think a person in good conscience could vote for Mr. Biden. I frankly in my own way of thinking have a more difficult time with the other option.”
Bishop McElroy speaks of the church being “proud collaborators” with a Biden Administration on climate change and social justice, while maintaining “sharp disagreement” on abortion. “It is not Catholic teaching that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face in the world of Catholic social teaching. It is not,” McElroy said last year.
Pope Francis took issue with Trump on immigration during a 2016 visit to Mexico and has since doubled down on climate and treatment of refugees. “In San Diego, we have 200,000 undocumented men, women and children: We need to legalize these families that have been living in the shadows for 10, 15, 20 years,” McElroy said post-election.
Conservatives in the hierarchy reacted. Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who chairs the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), warned recently that getting too friendly with Biden could “undermine our preeminent priority of the elimination of abortion.” The NCCB has set up a task force on how to deal with the 46th president.
Pope Francis has called Biden with congratulations on being elected president. The then-vice president hosted the Holy Father on his first visit to the United States. “In a pluralistic, fragmented world, we are invited to dialogue,” Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Delegate to the United States, the Vatican’s ambassador, said after the election.
President-elect Biden can be described as a Francis Catholic. The betting here is that he will make common cause with the Gregorys, Tobins, and the McElroys. Polemicists of the Catholic right and pre-Francis bishops will continue to assail him as an abortion enabler. The NCCB task force will be neither heard nor noticed.
Biden has set out to be America’s healer in chief, a role anchored to his Catholicism.
At the funeral for George Floyd, murdered by Minneapolis police, Biden spoke to Floyd’s six-year-old daughter Gianna, saying: “Daddy is looking down at you, and he is so proud of you. I know you miss that bear hug that only he could give, the pure joy of riding on his shoulders so you could touch the sky. Why? Why is Daddy gone? In looking through your eyes, we should all be asking ourselves why the answer is often too cruel and painful.”
Such pronouncements are a product of his life experience and his DNA. John F. Kennedy downplayed his faith. With Joe Biden, faith is constantly in play.