Joseph R. Biden, Jr. is the second Catholic president of the United States after John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1961–1963), but he the first to have made his Catholicism central to his 2020 election campaign — leaving no doubt as to where his roots lie and what sustains him. In his speeches and public comments throughout the campaign, he did not hesitate to refer to religion. He even called his campaign a “battle for the soul of America.”
In his victory speech on 7 November, Biden cited both the Bible and one of the liturgical hymns of the Catholic repertoire most readily identified with the post-Vatican II era, “On Eagle’s Wings.” When introducing the hymn, he commented: “It captures the faith that sustains me, which I believe sustains America. And I hope it can provide some comfort and solace to the more than 230,000 families who have lost a loved one to this terrible virus this year.” And then, after quoting several lines of the hymn, Biden concluded, “And now, together — on eagle’s wings — we embark on the work that God and history have called upon us to do.”
In his inauguration speech on 20 January, he quoted a teaching from Augustine — “a saint of my church” — that “a people are a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.”
Biden is the first Catholic president to publicly express a religious soul — not a vaguely Christian one, but a distinctly Catholic one; confidently but not bellicosely. The newly elected president refused to make his faith a weapon of “culture war” rhetoric. He was, moreover, denied any sort of “honeymoon” within the institutional Church after his November victory. His election to the presidency did not allay the tensions between Biden and the bishops, nor those among the bishops themselves.
While the pope and the Vatican immediately accepted the result of the election as a fait accompli, the US bishops’ conference was quick only to send hostile signals, choosing to create a special commission to respond to the presidency of a Catholic whose political positions differ from those of the magisterium in the same way that many other Catholics of his generation do (most notably, on abortion and on the dominant issues of the last decade: same-sex marriage, LGBTQ rights, and religious freedom). The bishops soon found themselves distanced, not only from the new administration, but also from many within their own Church. The Association of US Catholic Priests, the largest organisation of its kind in the nation, urged the bishops to open a collaborative dialogue with the Biden administration.
The tensions between the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the president, and between the US bishops’ conference and the papacy of Francis have risen to unprecedented levels in the first two weeks of the Biden presidency, with the papacy opening with the new presidency a line of dialogue that is being opposed by the leadership of the USCCB, which has declared its willingness to deny President Biden communion.
The politics of abortion
At the heart of the asymmetrical struggle of the bishops’ conference against Biden (who has not publicly opposed the bishops) is the new president’s position on abortion. This position has evolved over time, following a trajectory common within the liberal-progressive culture in the United States. In 1974, shortly after the US Supreme Court recognized the right to abortion as a constitutional right — a rather singular position among Western democracies — Senator Biden criticised the ruling for going “too far” in a liberal direction. In 1982, Biden voted in favour of an amendment that would have effectively allowed states to overturn Roe v. Wade, only to vote against it the following year. During his years as Barack Obama’s vice president (2009‒2017) and then as a presidential candidate in 2020, Biden embraced a more liberal stance in defence of Roe v. Wade.
Since the election of Ronald Reagan, American Catholic political discourse on the right has been largely reduced to “abortion politics.” Little consideration is given to the fact that almost all of the political rhetoric in defence of “life” comes from politicians whose social policies fail actually to support or defend life in a long list of ways. The leadership of the US Catholic Church has thus become insensitive to the instrumentalisation of its teaching for purely political purposes.
In recent times, American culture (like Western politics more generally) has witnessed the resurgence of an undeniably libertarian thrust that has spared neither side of the ideological spectrum. On the right — including the Catholic right — this thrust emerged most visibly during the pandemic with an anarchic and subversive flavour. It represents the accessory to a rhetoric on abortion which, on the right, has been largely reduced to posturing.
To this new libertarianism, the Catholic Biden responded with an emphasis on “the common good” — a central concept of the centuries-old tradition of Catholic social teaching. This emphasis was effective during the pandemic, but on the question of abortion the political and religious left has failed to find adequate way to interpret a new awareness of the vulnerability of life in its entirety. Such an interpretation needs to grapple both with the complicated interplay between biology and politics (see Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia) and with the violence of the technocratic paradigm (see Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’).
This presents a new opportunity for Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s “seamless garment” approach to life issues, re-read in light of the environmental crisis. It is a political and cultural space that still needs to be created incrementally for Catholics, and which has found a voice in Pope Francis but has yet to do so among the American Catholic bishops. On the left, Catholics find themselves in a party where the platform on abortion has become an article of political faith that does not tolerate deviation.
The antagonism toward President Biden expressed by the president of the US bishops’ conference, Archbishop José Gomez, was regarded as insufficient by the most militant soul of the nation’s episcopate, the archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput. Two weeks after the USCCB assembly, this leader of the US intransigent party (and the first Philadelphia archbishop in a century not to be made a cardinal) published an article in the magazine First Things that could be read as an effort to intimidate his brother bishops — and, in particular, the new cardinal archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory — into refusing to permit the new US president of receiving Communion at Mass.
This article was also a sign of the conference’s persistent lack of authority. For years now, it has been at the mercy of its intransigent wing, extremist on both ecclesial and political questions, and has lacked any recognisable leadership of the Catholic Church in the United States. Archbishop Chaput both expressed and deepened a clear impoverishment of the USCCB’s ability to interact in the public square, which becomes clear when one compares it with the same conference’s text of June 2004 — “Catholics in Political Life” — which rejected efforts to reduce the Eucharist to a weapon in the “culture wars.”
A Church divided
These high-tension exchanges between the president-elect and the bishops’ conference are just a prelude. The relationship will surely remain tense, since bishops remain in office until the age of seventy-five, which for the most hostile ones is well beyond the end of Biden’s term of office. Some of them, moreover, welcome the visibility that the Catholic media grants them even after retirement, effectively putting themselves in permanent service of the “culture wars.” The Biden presidency may face a neo-medieval “subtraction (or withdrawal) of obedience”; its advocates will point to his and his party’s support for legal abortion, but that justification will merely disguise their nostalgia for Trump’s neo-Constantinian policy toward the Church.
Biden’s ascent to office marks a change of guard between different types of Catholics in positions of power. The Catholics of the Trump administration — starting with Attorney General William Barr — embodied a Catholicism that has more to do with the political orthodoxy of the Republican Party than with Catholic doctrine. It is a neo-reactionary Catholicism that is alive and well, having now consolidated its power within the institutions.
The Biden presidency will have to deal — especially from a symbolic point of view — with this internal Catholic front. In doing so, it will be able to count on a cadre of public Catholics very different from those who lent support to Trump. That will not include the USCCB, but it will include: some bishops and cardinals close to Francis who have been marginalised within an episcopal conference in free fall, lacking any moral authority; the Jesuit network, from James Martin, SJ to Pope Francis; the “soft power” of the media and universities; and the religious sisters involved in social work, such as Simone Campbell and Helen Prejean — a Catholicism less defined by the white, clerical elites and more reflective of the face of the American Church today.
But it’s clearly a Catholic Church that, in the United States, is divided like never before — not even at the time of the “Americanist crisis” between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Leo XIII sided against the Americanist bishops, but their leader, John Ireland, would have never challenged the authority of the pope in the same way some US bishops have done Francis.
The second Catholic president of the United States is the first to hold office in the midst of an American intra-Church crisis — in some sense, the resurgence of the Catholic Americanism that the papacy brought back under control more than a century ago. The reconciliation between the two ecclesial parties is not easier than the reconciliation between the two political parties.
Massimo Faggioli is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. He is the author of The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis: Moving toward Global Catholicity, and, most recently, Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States.
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