Roman Catholicism And The Biden Presidency

Jun 19th, 2021 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

President Joe Biden is the second Roman Catholic president in American history.  Biden attends Mass every Sunday and on Catholic holy days, and he regularly prays the rosary (a series of meditative prayers) using rosary beads that belonged to his son Beau.  He wears his Catholicism on his sleeve and is not afraid of publically affirming his personal faith.  Furthermore, Biden oversees a government with an unprecedented representation of the Catholic Church:  Six of the nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic, as is the Speaker of the House; at least eight Cabinet secretaries are Catholic, as are multiple other members of the Administration.  One-fifth of all votes cast in the 2020 election were cast by Catholics, half of them for Biden.  Yet, Biden embodies the liberal brand of Catholicism, which evidences the deep split within Catholicism over key social issues.  Biden’s presidency is thus a potential religious watershed in American history.

Between 1877 and 1961, there were 13 Mainline-affiliated presidents (plus one Quaker and one Unitarian). The last of these presidents, Dwight Eisenhower, was baptized as a Presbyterian while serving as president; tangible evidence of the revival sweeping America after World War II.  In the 1960s, the Mainline Protestant establishment went into a steep decline, which was manifested in subsequent presidencies.  Columnist Ross Douthat summarizes these subsequent changes:  “George W. Bush represented the cultural alliance between his own evangelicalism and conservative Catholicism, which envisioned itself as a new religious establishment—and then ended amidst the Catholic sex-abuse crisis and a new wave of secularization.  Next, Barack Obama embodied an uneasy fusion between attenuated liberal Protestantism and the African-American church—before the emergence of a more zealous, ‘woke’ progressivism, in his second term and after, left Obama’s more detached religious style behind.  Then Donald Trump, a Norman Vincent Peale, ‘power of positive thinking’ Christian without actual belief, became an avatar for prosperity theology and Christian nationalism—a style of religiosity too fundamentally right-wing to claim the religious center” of the nation.  Now with Biden we have liberal Catholicism at the center of America’s national life.  Few Protestant evangelicals understand the liberal brand of Catholicism, and even fewer understand Biden’s Catholic faith.  Clarifying all this is the purpose of this edition of Issues in Perspective.

As President, Biden actually refutes the often heard charge that Democrats are inherently anti-Christian.  In fact, Biden is perhaps the most religiously observant president in half a century.  He openly speaks of how his faith helped him through the tragedies of losing his wife and daughter in a car crash and later his son Beau to cancer.  But what exactly is the nature of his Catholic Christianity?  His Catholicism represents the religiously liberal wing of an increasingly divided Roman Catholic Church.  His policy priorities follow those of Pope Francis, who has sought to turn the Church’s attention from sexual politics and “culture war” issues to the environment, poverty and immigration issues.  He adheres to Jesus’ summary that we are to “Love God” and “Love our Neighbor,” which has caused him consistently to engage in acts of outreach and kindness based on the axiom that everyone is entitled to dignity and respect.    A native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden grew up a devout Catholic but witnessed the profound changes occurring within his church, especially those inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).  Vatican II brought liberalizing change to Catholicism:  Church services were more accessible; the Mass was no longer said only in Latin as the priest faced the congregation.  Catholics could now pray and work with other Christians; and Catholics could attend Bible studies, even with non-Catholics.  But not everyone accepted these reforms.  Indeed, there was conservative push back within the Church, causing significant division.

The division within Catholicism can be identified as Progressive Catholics and Conservative Catholics.  Progressive Catholics champion immigration reform, race relations, economic inequality and the environment as the core of the Church’s social teaching, but depart with the Church’s historic stance on abortion, same-sex marriage and gender issues.  Conservative Catholics are not totally supportive of Vatican II and are more concerned about the moral evils in society that threaten human life and dignity, especially abortion, contraception and matters of marriage and gender.  As Francis X. Rocca argues, “Catholics on the left and the right . . . agree that their church’s social doctrine is inseparable from its teaching on morals, including sexual and medical ethics.  But they differ forcefully over how much political weight to give what Pope Benedict XVI called nonnegotiable moral issues, especially abortion.”  “For the nation’s bishops, the continued injustice of abortion remains the ‘preeminent priority’,” argues Archbishop Joe H. Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

President Biden has clearly aligned himself with Progressive Catholics.  Conservative Catholics maintain that Biden’s positon on key life issues may sow confusion within the Church and legitimize what some call “cafeteria Catholicism,” the idea that Catholics can pick and choose the church teachings to which they will adhere.  Archbishop Gomez strongly suggests that the apparent contradiction between Biden’s outward faith and policies that conflict with the Church “creates confusion among the faithful about what the church actually teaches on these questions.”  Most prominent is Biden’s total commitment to abortion rights, even dropping his long-standing support (for decades) of the Hyde Amendment, the 1970s law that prohibited federal funds being used to subsidize abortion.  He now also steadfastly supports same-sex marriage, another radical departure from his Church’s doctrine.  As Robert George so correctly observes, “The clear and undeniable respect in which Biden denies foundational Catholic social teaching is in exposing the unborn to the lethal violence of abortion.  What guides his agenda, what informs his ideology, is secular progressivism, not Catholic social teaching.”  Ross Douthat is emphatically accurate in his observation that “. . . the liberal Catholic worldview is constantly in danger of simply being subsumed into political liberalism, with all religious distinctives shorn away—as Joe Biden’s past pro-life positions have now been entirely subsumed, for instance, by his party’s orthodoxy on abortion.”

In conclusion, Biden’s election has exposed a deep rift within Roman Catholicism that has been boiling for decades; that chasm is now widening.  Although Biden campaigned and is now implementing policies that conform to and reflect the Church’s social doctrine (e.g., advancing racial justice, ending the death penalty, addressing climate change and aiding refugees), his thoroughgoing support of abortion, same-sex marriage and transgender rights departs radically from established Church doctrine.  For the Conservative Catholic, Biden embodies Progressive Catholicism, which poses an existential threat to the future of Catholicism in America.  In his advocacy of political liberalism, Biden is embracing Progressive Catholicism, which bears little resemblance to historic Catholicism, let alone genuine biblical Christianity.  In that sense, Biden’s Catholicism is undermining his own heritage.

See Brain Bennett, “Keeping the Faith” in Time (12-19 April 2021), pp. 28-35; Francis X. Rocca in the Wall Street Journal (6-7 February 2021); Elizabeth Dias in the New York Times (24 January 2021); and Ross Douthat in the New York Times (24 January 2021).

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One Comment to “Roman Catholicism And The Biden Presidency”

  1. Peter Wiebe says:

    This article is treating Biden’s policies very gently. An advocate for Catholicism, John Horvat, Vice-President, Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), has taken a very courageous, public stance on opposing Biden’s agenda. One of his many article and partitions stated that “Biden, the Bible and God Were Incompatible” because what Biden portrays as him being Catholic is denied by his own policies. Biden appears to use his “Catholicism” for political advantage rather than following through on biblical convictions. Simply put, Biden is a hypocrite.