How Joe Biden’s Catholic roots have shaped his public life
Campaign hopes Biden’s personal story and faith will offer stark moral contrast to Trump
Jul 30, 2020 by Christopher White – N.C.R. (National Catholic Reporter)
Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a Democratic presidential primary event in Las Vegas Feb. 15. (Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore)
As uprisings sparked by George Floyd’s death erupted throughout the nation, Joe Biden turned to his Catholic faith to offer inspiration to a nation gripped by yet another killing of an unarmed Black man at the hands of a white police officer.
“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,” he said in a videotaped eulogy June 9, lamenting that there is still much work to be done “to ensure that all men and women are not only created equal, but are treated equally.”
Biden reiterated that last phrase when the civil rights hero Congressman John Lewis died July 17. Biden’s statement began: “We are made in the image of God.”
A “prayer to overcome racism” in a recent church bulletin at St. Joseph on the Brandywine in Greenville, Delaware, offered similar sentiments. The suburban parish north of Wilmington is where Biden and his wife, Jill, worship and where, Msgr. Joseph Rebman told NCR, “they arrive a little late and leave a bit early, just like a lot of Catholics.”
Biden’s faith is cited on the first page of his 2007 memoir, Promises to Keep, firmly situating himself in the context of an Irish Catholic family and a working-class community that revolved around the family’s religious practices — and not just on Sunday.
John Carr, director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, told NCR, “For an Irish Catholic kid growing up at a time of Vatican II, civil rights and the Vietnam War, there were several paths forward. Some resisted change and clung to old ways, some abandoned roots to embrace change, and some found in faith and family the strength to work for greater justice.”
In September 2011, Vice President Joe Biden kneels in the chapel of Our Lady of Siluva at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception following a memorial Mass for Vatican diplomat Archbishop Pietro Sambi in Washington. (CNS/Leslie E. Kossoff)
“Vice President Biden is a unique combination of roots and change,” said Carr.
Biden credits those Catholic roots — which first took seed in parishes and parochial schools in Pennsylvania and Delaware — with teaching him the importance of the human dignity of all people, a core principle of Catholic social teaching. They also shaped his understanding of solidarity, especially with the poor and the working class, which he regularly cites when talking about job security and economic policy.
Most importantly, his is also a faith that has been tested by personal loss of an enormous magnitude and one that has come into conflict with Democratic policy positions, forcing him to change and evolve along the way to keep up with shifting uniform stances within the party.
Now, at 77, the former senator and former vice president could be on the cusp of becoming only the second Catholic president in U.S. history. He is hands down the most comfortable Democratic politician of his generation talking about the role religion has played in shaping his approach to public life. As such, John McCarthy, the deputy national political director for the Biden campaign, told NCR that “faith outreach is probably the most integrated it’s ever been on a presidential campaign” for a Democratic candidate.
As President Donald Trump’s poll numbers continue to decline among people of faith, the Biden campaign is hoping that the authenticity of Biden’s personal story, and, in particular, his Catholic faith will offer a stark moral contrast to Trump.
‘For the soul of this nation’
In the opening salvo of his campaign last year, Biden declared that America is facing “a battle for the soul of this nation,” a line he has used repeatedly. Those close to Biden say it illustrates the inextricable way that his faith informs his approach to public life and is shaping his bid for the presidency.
“In his own mind, it’s the inspiration to just about everything the campaign is trying to do,” said Stephen Schneck, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network in Washington D.C.
In an op-ed last December, Biden summarized part of his pitch to religious voters, saying Trump “doesn’t know what it means to live for or believe in something bigger than himself.”
“Biden actually sees his Catholic faith as a key for bringing the country back together and overcoming the divisions that divide us,” Schneck said. “He thinks there’s something in Catholicism itself that provides a ground where both sides can find commonplace.”
Michael Wear, who led President Barack Obama’s faith outreach during the 2012 campaign, said that message is central to the distinction that the Biden camp is hoping to offer. “Donald Trump is someone who needs religion to work for him in order to be politically successful,” said Wear. “He is someone who has used religion and religious people. He values them to the extent that they’re valuable to him.The contrast Joe Biden has to offer,” Wear continued, is that he “isn’t looking to see what faith can do for him. His life has been looking to see how he can serve out of, in part, a motivation of faith.”
Biden ‘cares about what the bishops have to say, even if he knows he’s going to disagree with them.’
Such a contrast may not be enough to win over some religious voters who singularly focus on abortion, nor may it appease those who are skeptical of his denials that he sexually assaulted a former Senate staffer.
During a May virtual town hall sponsored by CatholicVote.org, Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s former chief of staff and another practicing Catholic, warned, “There is something that doesn’t connect any more between faith and the Democrat Party.”
Citing abortion, Mulvaney said, “You have to not only vote the Republican Party, but you have to help get them elected.”
In an even bolder statement, Fr. Frank Pavone of the organization Priests for Life recently penned an open letter to Biden, urging him to “conform your conduct to the Church to which you claim to belong, or acknowledge that you no longer belong to it.”
Over the years, Biden’s abortion stance has increasingly liberalized. In a 1974 interview, he said, “I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion. I think it went too far.”
But as the pro-choice platform became Democratic Party orthodoxy, Biden shifted, too. In a 2012 vice presidential debate with Catholic Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, Biden said, “I accept my church’s position on abortion. … I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews.”
This position has evoked the ire of some Catholic bishops and Catholics like Carr who have criticized Biden for falling in line with the “extremism” of the Democratic Party’s position on abortion. Schneck told NCR that it’s a profound disappointment to see Biden further shift to support federal funding of abortion during the 2020 primaries.
“I disagree with the vice president on this issue, but I don’t see this as suggesting he’s not a good Catholic,” said Schneck, who still believes that voters will have with Biden a president who takes faith and people of faith seriously.
Far from Trump’s recent warnings that Biden will “eliminate religion” if elected, “he actually cares what religious leaders think,” former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson said at a Georgetown University forum July 10.
President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and senior staff react in the Roosevelt Room of the White House as the House passes the health care reform bill March 21, 2010. (Flickr/Obama White House/Pete Souza)
“He cares about what the bishops have to say, even if he knows he’s going to disagree with them,” said Wear, noting that during the clash between the U.S. bishops and the Obama administration over health care reform, it was Biden who served as a behind-the-scenes liaison trying to accommodate faith leaders’ concerns.
This single paragraph indicates the difference between Joe Biden’s practising Catholic faith, and the attempts of President Donald Trump to harness the zeal that conservative Evangelicals are exercising for his controversial re-election as POTUS:
“Michael Wear, who led President Barack Obama’s faith outreach during the 2012 campaign, said that message is central to the distinction that the Biden camp is hoping to offer. “Donald Trump is someone who needs religion to work for him in order to be politically successful,” said Wear. “He is someone who has used religion and religious people. He values them to the extent that they’re valuable to him.The contrast Joe Biden has to offer,” Wear continued, is that he “isn’t looking to see what faith can do for him. His life has been looking to see how he can serve out of, in part, a motivation of faith.”
Trump’s cynical use of fundamentalist religious fervour in order to shore up his bid for re-election to the most powerful role in U.S. politics needs to be seen for what it really is! God help America – and God help the world – if D.T. is re-elected!
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand