Biden finds himself caught up in Catholic Church politics

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WASHINGTON – There was a time when President Joe Biden could have been Father Joe.

During long periods of his childhood, while being educated by nuns in Catholic schools, Biden considered entering the priesthood, eventually convinced by his mother to try college first. After his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash in 1972, he later recounted, the newly elected senator met with a local bishop to discuss a dispensation that would have allowed him to become a priest.

Biden has been arguably the most observant president in decades, and his faith is central to who he is. He rarely misses mass. He crosses himself in public. He quotes the scriptures, he quotes hymns, and he takes the beads before key decisions.

But now the country’s most prominent Catholic disagrees with many American bishops in his church. He was the catalyst for an explosive disagreement that had been going on for years, over whether Communion should be granted to politicians whose public positions run counter to church doctrine, and Friday, they took a step towards excluding Biden and others from the Eucharist.

This decision places Biden, who rarely speaks of his Catholicism, at the center not only of a political struggle between conservatives and liberals, but also of an ecclesial struggle between traditionalists and reformers. In this sense, he aligns himself with Pope Francis as world-renowned liberal Catholics, a phenomenon that presents a challenge to traditionalists.

“If there are Catholic icons in this world and this country, it is Pope Francis and Joe Biden,” said Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology at the University of Villanova and author of “Joe Biden and Catholicism in United States “. “This is seen by some bishops as a threat because their position is much more marginal now.”

Biden has long admired Francis, whom mainstream Catholic priests consider too liberal and who discouraged bishops from moving forward by restricting fellowship.

The two men – an Argentinian Jesuit and a Scranton-born pol – share in some ways similar philosophies, aligned with climate change, social change and economic disparities. Each tries to break away from a more rigid predecessor in a way they deem more inclusive, but which anger those who see the changes as too permissive.

“The convergence of a relatively progressive pope and a moderately progressive President of the United States is causing alarms for some of the so-called traditional or conservative Catholics, who feel that their position in the religious community is threatened,” said Mark Rozell, who co-edited the book “Catholics and American Politics After the 2016 Election: Understanding the“ Swing Vote ”. “

“How does Biden respond to it?” added Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “I have no idea. This puts the president in a very difficult situation.

For now, he responds by not saying much about it. Asked Friday afternoon about the decision of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the possibility of being denied Communion, Biden paused.

“It’s a private matter,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Biden spent his early childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where it was not uncommon to see crucifixes in stores, nuns on the streets, and priests in the neighborhood. Sundays always started with the whole family going to St. Paul’s for mass. The future president memorized the Our Father and the Symbol of the Apostles, and could recite most of the Baltimore catechism.

Her grandfather taught her to say the rosary and wished her good night by reminding her to say three Hail Marys for purity. He played Catholic Youth Organization football and attended Catholic schools.

“Wherever there were nuns, there was a house,” Biden wrote in his book “Promises to Keep”. “I am as much a cultural Catholic as I am a theological Catholic. My idea of ​​myself, of family, of community, of the world at large comes directly from my religion. “

That didn’t necessarily mean unwavering loyalty to Catholic doctrine – an approach that now puts him at odds with the bishops. “It’s not so much the Bible, the Beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments or the prayers that I learned,” Biden wrote. “It’s culture. Nuns are one of the reasons I am still a practicing Catholic.

The nuns, he said, defended him when his classmates laughed at his stuttering, or called him “Dash” not because he was a fast athlete, but because he had difficulty speaking clearly.

When he met his first wife, Neilia, his parents wanted them to separate because he was Catholic. Eventually, they gave up their objections and accepted not only the marriage, but also that it be performed by a Catholic priest.

Biden talks less about the social doctrines of his church and more about general philosophies – helping the less fortunate, being a decent person. Despite his habit of quoting the Scriptures (on Thursday in June he recited, “Crying may last a night, but joy comes in the morning”) and his casual asides about the nuns of his childhood, he hesitated to discuss her faith. in detail.

The contrast with former President Donald Trump is stark. Trump was not known as a practitioner or a religious, saying he couldn’t remember ever asking God for forgiveness and downplaying the importance of fellowship. But he aggressively wooed conservative Christians, winning their praise for his anti-abortion stance and his appointment as conservative judges.

Sometimes Trump has made particularly dramatic gestures, such as leaving the White House at a Black Lives Matter protest to hold up a Bible in front of St. John’s Church. During the 2020 campaign, Trump warned that Biden would “hurt the Bible, hurt God” if elected. At the Republican National Convention, former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz called Biden a “Catholic in name only.”

Biden, on the other hand, sometimes seems to downplay his own piety.

“I am not suggesting to you that I am a deeply religious man, but I believe deeply in my religion,” Biden told Irish America magazine in 1987. He added: “I believe that real wisdom has accumulated in course of 1,987 continuous years of Catholicism – as long as you take it in a way that understands that there are significant mistakes my church has made, but has an incredible resilience that I admire. ”

Biden said around this time that he never missed mass, although he couldn’t explain exactly why. One of the first questions his mother would ask him when he called him, he later recounted, was whether he had gone to church.

“In any case, I practice my religion,” he said. “It’s not a big deal.”

Maybe back then, when he was just a young senator, it didn’t matter. But now, as the second Catholic president in American history after John F. Kennedy, it’s clearly a much bigger deal.

The debate among American bishops often views Biden’s faith through the prism of abortion rights, a topic that has divided the church and problematic for Biden. During the 2012 vice-presidential debate with Republican candidate Paul Ryan, also a Catholic, Biden said he personally accepts the church’s position on abortion, “but I refuse to impose it on Christians, on Muslims. and to equally devout Jews “.

At the same time, many Democrats have long said that Biden does not support abortion rights enough, and it was only during his 2020 presidential campaign that he spoke out in favor of federal funding for abortion rights. abortions.

In the past, Biden’s pro-choice stance has led some bishops to deny him Communion. Catholic schools did not allow him to speak, and when he was selected in 2016 to receive one of the highest honors Notre Dame can bestow, it sparked an uproar among some on campus.

A member of an anti-honor group, University Faculty for Life, was future Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

But Biden’s stance also reflects a shift among many who now attend American Catholic churches. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 56% of Catholics support the right to abortion in all or most cases.

According to Pew, Catholics on the electoral roll are almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Although the growing segment of Hispanic Catholics lean overwhelmingly towards Democrats, there has been a steady erosion in the number of White Catholics who support the party.

In 2008, when Biden was Barack Obama’s running mate, the Democratic ticket won 54 to 45 percent of Catholics, according to exit polls. But during their 2012 re-election campaign, Catholics were also divided.

The numbers worsened for Democrats in 2016, when 52% of Catholics backed Trump, compared to 45% for Hillary Clinton, according to a Pew Research Center survey. In the November election, Catholic voters were roughly evenly split between Biden and Trump.

While Biden’s Catholicism is not only about adherence to doctrine, it is not alone. In a 2019 Pew poll, for example, nearly 70% of Catholics said they did not believe in transubstantiation, the ideas that the bread and wine used for fellowship becomes the body and blood of Jesus.

“My religion is just a tremendous sense of comfort,” Biden told Stephen Colbert in a 2015 interview. “What my faith has done is sort of takes everything in my mind. life – with my parents and my siblings and all the heartwarming things … All the good things that happened around the cultivation of my religion and the theology of my religion. And I don’t know how to explain it more than that.

Faggioli said a less traditional approach to religion has likely ignited church leaders in part because Biden is so visibly Catholic and religious, essentially offering an alternate take on what it means to be Catholic.

“What is remarkable is that the archbishops in the last seven months since his election are really trying to find a way to discipline him,” Faggioli said. “And Joe Biden totally ignored them.”


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