How Catholic is Biden?
Pope Francis greets Joe Biden at a conference on adult stem cell research in 2016 - Photo: CNS/L’osservatore Romano
On Ash Wednesdays, Joe Biden’s forehead carries a tell-tale smudge. If he wins in November, he will be the second Catholic President of the United States, after John F. Kennedy. Yet his pro-choice position aggravates those who see abortion as the pre-eminent issue in public life
The Republican National Convention last month saw legendary Notre Dame football coach, Lou Holtz, claim that former Vice President Joe Biden and politicians like him are “Catholics in name only”. Fr John Jenkins, president of the university, not only disassociated Notre Dame from Holtz’s remarks, but chastised the former coach.
“We Catholics should remind ourselves that while we may judge the objective moral quality of another’s actions, we must never question the sincerity of another’s faith, which is due to the mysterious working of grace in that person’s heart,” Jenkins said.
The ad hominem quality of Holtz’s attack was unprecedented for a national convention, but not entirely surprising. One of the first rules of presidential politics is to identify your opponent’s strength, and turn it into a liability, and people who know Biden know that he takes his faith very seriously.
The first time I met Biden, other than in a Christmas reception line, was in 2015. I was one of eight Catholic leaders invited to a working breakfast at his residence in the grounds of the US Naval Observatory in Washington to discuss the forthcoming visit of Pope Francis. A second breakfast with a dozen prominent Catholics followed. On both occasions, it was clear that the vice president was approaching the need to make the trip a success not only from a political standpoint, but because he was going to get to spend time with the Pope. It was also clear how much he liked Pope Francis and was excited, even proud, to be hosting him.
If you were a Washington Catholic during the Obama years, you knew that the Bidens sometimes went to Mass at Holy Trinity, the Jesuit parish in Georgetown, and that sometimes, if Biden was getting home late from a trip, a priest would be dispatched from the Vatican nunciature across the street from his residence to say Mass. He was famous for “working his beads” in the White House Situation Room during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. When interviewed on Ash Wednesday, the tell-tale smudge of ashes was always on his forehead.
“It’s hard to comprehend those who are challenging the legitimacy of Biden’s Catholic faith,” executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, Stephen Schneck, told me. “I’ve seen him at Mass several times, seen the rosary in his pocket. More importantly I’ve heard the sincerity in his voice when he talks about his faith – away from the cameras, away from reporters. It’s the real deal, believe me.”
How could religion not be central to Biden’s life? In 1972, a few weeks after he had been elected as a senator from Delaware at the age of 29, his wife, Neilia, and daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car accident. His two sons, Beau and Hunter, were gravely injured. Biden considered quitting politics, but was persuaded to stay. Instead of getting an apartment in Washington like most senators, Biden took the train home to Wilmington to tuck his sons into bed every night. In 2010, Biden’s oldest son, Beau, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. It claimed his life five years later.
“Faith is what got me through the difficult times in my life,” the former vice president said in a campaign video released at the Democratic National Convention. No one doubts it, nor that his experience of acute suffering and loss is the source of the natural empathy for which he is well known.
How far his Catholic faith shapes his political views is less clear and more controversial. He was born in 1942 into a mostly Irish Catholic family in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The immediate post-war era was a time when the Church and the trade unions were closely connected with each other and with the politics of the Democratic Party in industrial cities such as Scranton. Union meetings were held in church basements, and both union members and Democratic politicians imbibed the basics of Catholic Social Teaching.
Biden’s once-wealthy father fell on hard times and moved the family to Delaware, a less overwhelmingly Catholic area, when Joe was 11 years old. When his father became a successful used car salesman he was able to send Joe to a private Catholic high school, Archmere Academy. He graduated in 1961, as John F. Kennedy was serving his first year as president. At the time, before the neuralgic issues of abortion and gay rights began to tear apart the primary religious identity of Catholics in public life, the politics of the Church leaned to the left. “In the 1960s, the Church was in the vanguard of the civil rights movement as well as the anti-war movement,” Catholic University of America politics professor, John White, told me.
When he entered the Senate in January 1973 – Roe vs Wade, the landmark decision of the Supreme Court that established a woman’s legal right to an abortion, was announced a few weeks later – Biden was vaguely pro-life on abortion, as were other liberal lions such as Senator Edward Kennedy and Congressman Richard Gephardt. But, in the course of the 1970s and 1980s, the Democrats became the pro-choice party and the Republicans became the pro-life party, and Biden’s position on abortion shifted. Last year, he abruptly withdrew his support for the Hyde Amendment, a measure banning federal funding for abortion in most cases.
In 1983, seeing how the single-minded preoccupation with the abortion issue was pushing the Catholic Church into a de facto alliance with the Republican Party, Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin articulated a “consistent ethic of life” that urged Catholics in public life to witness to the value of human life on all issues: capital punishment, nuclear weapons and war itself, as well as abortion. But conservative prelates, such as Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston and John O’Connor in New York, were in the ascendency. Bernardin was effectively sidelined.
According to St John’s University theology professor Meghan Clark, ‘“the abandoning of the ‘consistent ethic’ approach left Catholics who worked on social justice issues, like my grandparents, ecclesially frustrated at the same time as they began to feel politically homeless”.
Mark Massa SJ, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, also sees the abandonment of the “consistent ethic” approach as a pivotal point. “I think that the US Catholic Church would be in a very different – and more united – place if the USCCB had gone with Cardinal Bernardin’s famous metaphor of the ‘seamless garment’,” Massa says.
“As I always remind my own students, the opposite of Catholic is not Protestant, but rather sectarian: the Church throughout the centuries has consistently sought to stay in the public conversation on moral and ethical issues, not marginalise itself against the larger society. It seems to me that in making abortion not only the number one issue, but even the only issue in deciding whom to vote for, many US bishops have crossed the sectarian line into a profoundly un-Catholic position, a position more about cultural warriorship than about moral theology.”
For most Americans, including Catholics, the issue of abortion remains characterised by ambivalence. “Polls show that many people are divided about abortion – not only with each other, but within themselves,” says Boston College professor of both law and theology, Cathleen Kaveny. “From a moral perspective, they see differences between very early abortions and late-term abortions, between abortions performed for reasons pertaining to the life and the health of the mother, and for other reasons. They value nascent human life, but they also see that pregnancy constitutes a unique physical burden on women.”
But, adds Kaveny, “most people don’t want to talk about abortion, because any sign of ambivalence leaves them open to attack by loud and ruthless activists on both sides. And they intuitively recognise that moving from morality to law and public policy is not a simple matter on such a socially divisive issue. As I read the data, ‘safe, legal, and rare’ best captures the attitude of most of these silent Americans.”
The number of abortions is falling in the US, and the abortion rate is lower today than it was in 1973, when Biden entered the Senate and when the Supreme Court decided Roe vs Wade. It was surprising to many that in four nights of sustained messaging during the Democratic National Convention, the word “abortion” was not mentioned once.
Abortion was the tip of the culture war iceberg. American politics would become increasingly divided by issues such as gun control, criminal justice, and LGBT rights. President Donald Trump is at home with the anxieties and the fervour the culture wars produce, and his fiercest defenders are white Evangelical Christians who feel besieged by the ambient, secular culture.
Biden has presented himself as the antidote not only to Trump, but to the scorched earth approach to politics that some activists on the left embrace. Not all Catholics are buying Biden’s credentials as a peacemaker. “For years, American political conservatives insisted – correctly – that public servants’ character and the tone of public discourse were important,” says Notre Dame law professor, Richard Garnett. “And although there is plenty of blame to go around for the coarsening and even the degradation of the civic conversation, unfortunately former Vice President Biden is not a promising standard bearer for civility and charity in politics. Although he’s generally regarded as affable, he was at the centre of one of the least edifying events in the last 40 years of American politics, that is, the scorched earth campaign that was waged by Democrats and activists to prevent Judge Robert Bork’s confirmation to the Supreme Court [in 1987]. That event, as much as any other, damaged not only our judicial-confirmation process but also, and more generally, our ability to have reasoned arguments in the public square.” The episode gave American politics a new verb: “to bork” someone is “to obstruct through systematic defamation or vilification”.
On issues such as race relations and economics, Biden is more in step with Catholic teaching, but here he is increasingly out of step with large numbers of Catholics. “Some people thought that the civil rights and anti-war victories were complete,” says John White. “Civil rights legislation was passed and the war was ended. But in the 1970s, a backlash began to manifest itself. This happened in the Church too, with opposition to Vatican II emerging.”
In the 1980s, the Reaganite-Thatcherite revolution cat- apulted laissez-faire economics into the modern age, and many affluent Catholics cheered on the neoliberal policies despite them creating gross income inequality.
Biden, like most Democrats, retained the language of solidarity and opposed the massive tax cuts and deregulation that characterised the Reagan economic approach, but he accepted the basic tenets of neoliberal economics. When his hometown of Scranton and other mid-sized cities were hollowed out as jobs moved overseas, he and the Democrats had little to say about it. He supported the free trade deals that epitomise government indifference to America’s working class.
Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 in large part because of his ability to attract white, working-class Catholic voters in places like Scranton. He won key Midwestern battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, both of which have a higher percentage of Catholics (24 per cent and 25 per cent) than the national average (21 per cent). That may seem like a small difference, but in 2016 Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes out of more than 6 million cast. In Wisconsin, the margin was even smaller.
Latino Catholics are also emerging as a critical part of the electorate in Florida and in the “new” swing state of Arizona, where immigrants from Mexico and Central America have put down roots for decades and their citizen children are coming of age. Latino Catholics lean heavily to the Democrats, not least because of Trump’s xenophobic immigration policies. But at the Democratic convention last month, there was very little outreach to Latinos.
In January, Trump enjoyed a 58 per cent approval rating among white Catholics, but in June that number had dropped to 54 per cent. A similar slippage was found among white Evangelical Protestants, so there might not be anything specifically different about how Catholics vote in November. Campaigns leave little to chance, however, and so, at the Democratic convention, Biden and his surrogates spoke openly and frequently about the central role faith has played in his life.
The campaign has made a video that starts with images of Biden meeting with Pope Francis and then greeting nuns in St Peter’s Square. The sisters “epitomise everything Pope Francis talked about in his homily and what he stands for. About generosity to other people, about reaching out, about making it a point to understand that we are our brother’s keeper,” Biden says in the video.
When criticising Trump’s peddling of fear to galvanise his base, Biden said, quoting Pope John Paul II’s installation homily (and the Scriptures): “Be not afraid.” When delivering a eulogy for George Floyd, the black man killed in May by a white police officer, Biden said: “I grew up with Catholic social doctrine, which taught me that faith without works is dead, and you will know us by what we do.”
At the end of August, the Biden campaign launched several “Believers for Biden” groups throughout the country, mirroring groups like CatholicVote.org which have been working to build support for Trump’s re-election.
By wrapping himself in religion, Biden only aggravates those who think abortion is the pre-eminent issue for Catholics in public life. The Catholics who say Biden is “Catholic in name only” mean to sting. The irony is that when John F. Kennedy ran for the presidency in 1960, he had to convince Protestant Americans that his religion would have no bearing on his conduct or his decisions in the White House. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic,” Kennedy told a group of Protestant ministers just before the election. “I do not speak for my Church on public matters, and the Church does not speak for me.”
Fr Massa observes: “As Catholics have become better educated and wealthier, the religion of the candidate has become less important. Andy Greeley used to say that Irish Catholics today are the wealthiest per capita and best educated non-Jewish religious group in the US. Thus, it’s not clear to me that if JFK were running today that he would receive the majority of the Catholic vote. Precisely because of this, religion plays a smaller role in Catholic voting than it did in 1960.”
If it is true that religion plays less of a role in the selection of candidates than it used to, no one has told Joe Biden.
Michael Sean Winters reports for The Tablet from the United States.