Joe Biden’s ‘Irish’ Catholic faith – Brendan Hoban

Brendan Hoban’s Western People article…

Joe Biden’s Catholic faith is distinctly Irish    

For all of his political life, Joe Biden has sought the American presidency. In 1980 when he was 37 and a senator barely a year in office, Biden had a meeting with Pope John Paul II. As a devout Catholic, it was an unexpected honour. As a politician he had to be careful that he didn’t leave any hostages to fortune.

Biden took advice from friends and colleagues on how he might handle the encounter. His mother, to whom Biden attributes his deep faith, told him, ‘Don’t you kiss his ring!’

Biden was conscious that, up to that point in the history of the United States, the only Catholic president was John F. Kennedy, who was only too aware of the twin criticisms he was receiving at the time: the bigotry of extreme Protestants who suggested that the pope in Rome would dictate policy to a Catholic president in Washington; and very traditional Catholics who expected exactly that.

Kennedy sorted the dilemma by charting a way between the two extremes when he told a meeting of Protestant leaders: ‘I believe in an America that is neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish and where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope’.

When Kennedy met Pope Paul VI in 1960, he didn’t kiss his ring, just as forty years later Biden didn’t kiss John Paul II’s ring. Biden accepted that, knowing America’s culture and taking his mother’s advice, Kennedy had established the template for Catholic politicians in the US.

As the American commentator, Jack Jenkins, has written recently, not kissing the papal ring indicates Biden’s political approach as a Catholic seeking high office. Biden decided that ‘where Catholic morality rubs up against welfare or justice issues such as abortion and gay rights, Biden’s understanding of his duty as a politician and a Catholic is clear: decisions are to be informed by his faith, not dictated by it’.

That’s why, though Biden as a Catholic is against abortion, as a legislator he will not seek to ‘force’ his Catholic principles on those not of his faith. This position is opposed by American ultra-conservative Catholics, especially those who equate ‘pro-life’ with ‘anti-abortion’ – and fail, indeed refuse to accept, for instance, Pope Francis’ insistence that capital punishment is against Catholic moral teaching. Concern for life in the womb, Francis keeps pointing out, should not trump other pro-life concerns, including those on death row.

Though Biden adopted the Kennedy template for Catholic engagement in American politics, it hasn’t been an easy fit. While most Catholics out of loyalty to Kennedy voted overwhelmingly for him – estimated at between 70 and 83% – only 51% of American Catholics voted for Biden.

In ordinary circumstances this might raise a few eyebrows but Catholics voting 47% for a candidate who, apart from his anti-abortion credentials, seemed to all intents and purposes to have hardly any moral compass at all, is indicative of the sad and sorry state of American Catholicism. In thrall to extreme and often right-wing Catholics, its leadership seems to be more interested in fighting culture wars than preaching the Good News and is (it is said) almost despaired of by Pope Francis.

How has the American Catholic Church come to this sorry state with (some) leaders and almost 50% of its members following the Trump populist gospel?

In trying to understand Biden’s Catholicism, it might be said that he’s a distinctly Irish Catholic. Irish Catholicism, as we know, extends across a broad spectrum from ‘traditional’ to ‘reformist’ – to give the extremes positive terms. But, in general, for most Irish Catholics faith tends to be cultural rather than theological, private rather than public, respecting individual conscience rather than enforcing Catholic principles on others, letting people use their intelligence rather than telling them what to do. It’s why recent referendums that seemed contrary to Catholic teaching were carried – because Catholics voted overwhelmingly for them.

Biden’s faith is Irish in this regard too. It is often more influenced by family than by theology, by friends more than clergy, by individual experience and quiet influence more than by edicts or lectures.

An Irish faith it cherishes the solace that faith offers in difficult times, the support that tested rituals provide when experiences like death and grief bring a challenging degree of incoherence into a lived life and respect for the complex and often ambivalent nature of the individual faith journey. It is, in short, a Catholicism that respects every individual’s conscience (and disrespects those who try to exert mind-control on the consciences of others).

But, in some ways, Biden is unlike Irish Catholics, in that he makes no secret of the importance of his Catholic faith. He carries a rosary-beads with him, praying it in times of crisis and difficulty. Before his brain surgery, he asked the doctors for permission to keep it under his pillow. A rival in one of the Democrat debates before the election, reported that he saw Biden with a rosary backstage. And in the famous photograph taken in the White House, as U.S. soldiers raided the compound of Osama bin Laden, Biden could be seen with his hands under the table, apparently praying the rosary.

On the other hand, most Irish Catholic men don’t carry a rosary beads and even if they did many of them wouldn’t be rushing to admit it. But for Biden, Catholicism is a very visible part of his life so personal criticism from Catholic church leaders and organisations must have been particularly difficult for him.

In the Catholic culture wars in America, during the pontificates of John Paul and Benedict, Biden was soundly criticised for abandoning his faith. It was reported that he was refused Communion in a South Carolina church. Bishop Thomas Tobin of Rhode Island tweeted that ‘For the first time in a while, the Democratic ticket hasn’t a Catholic on it’ and the now discredited Archbishop Vigano warned Trump that ‘the forces of evil were working against him’.

Biden kept going. ‘It’s ‘the nuns and the Jesuits’, he said, ‘that keep me Catholic’.

What a relief it will be having him in the White House, if they ever manage to get Trump out.

Similar Posts


  1. Joe+O'Leary says:

    Thanks, Brendan, for these lucid and authoritative observations. Sharing on Facebook.

  2. Paddy+Ferry says:

    Excellent piece, Brendan.

    It has just been shared as our parish SVdeP Conference weekly Spiritual Reading, also explaining that it is written by a Mayo man about a Mayo man though there is a bit of Co. Louth there too.

  3. Thang M Pham says:

    Mr. Brendan,
    Your thoughts about Mr. Joe Biden are grounded on cultural religion, not universal (Catholic). Maybe you (should) go back on the term “Conscience”, and ask yourself what “Conscience” is. As a Christian in general, and a Catholic in particular, it is the voice of the Holy Spirit who knocks the door of human awareness. Look at the sign on the road of life (Decalogue) or you will get lost, not only your own souls, but of others. The more privilege one possesses, the more responsibility will be demanded by God’s chosen one.

    The Catholic teaching never forces anyone to go against his free will, but what is right and can assure peace and promotes the common good. That is God’s intention. That is how the Saints and Holy Martyrs shed their blood for Christ. Christ does honor cultures, but God’s love is the heart. And human acts of goodness, love, and charity in simplicity of life attend holiness that everyone desires. Faith is the lantern to keep our human conscience in tune with the divine will. Otherwise, cultural values are fragments of natural human experience, maybe easily wired up into a sectarian practice or cult. That is why God gives us all the faculties to know his or her Creator, God. Didn’t many radical spiritual leaders try to make his religious ideal into a national religion? The Church has learned this mistake in the past. Scriptures make very clear about culture and faith in Christ and the principles of discipleship. “Whoever does not pick up the cross and follow me is not my disciple, anyone who loves their father, mother, sisters, or brothers more than me (who places political ideal above Divine Laws), is not worthy of being my disciples.”

    Pope Paul VI was a prophet who warned men at the dawn of 20th Century about the moral laws. It is not some thing imposing, but as a voice of conscience to protect human dignity, especially for the elderly and the unborn, the most vulnerable ones.

    Everyone of us must say thanks to our mother and father for their sacrifice and courage to allow us see light. Light is the hope. Where there is no greed, no hostility, but love and sacrifice, there we find peace with simplicity. You can not use humans to secure your ideology, but God blesses us all with the gifts to help each other to enjoy life and freedom. Everyone hopes when he/she retires, one deserves respect. When you are sick, you deserves care from others, and you would expect others do for you as you do the same with mutual respect. When one contemplates on God’s benevolence, one understands well the values of the Faith as the moral absolute in a humble heart.

    All religions are good because the Holy Spirit inspires all at their levels of understanding. Therefore, evangelization of cultures will make that cultures more perfect and beautiful. That is the reason human conscience is something written in the heart as a basic instinct with no need of human teaching, but not the fulness of its potentiality. Only by light of thought with objective Faith, God will show himself and lead you to the True cause of unity and common good. Faith does not impose or compromise human free will, but is the sister of reason. God gives each one the great gift of intellect and freedom, even the angels must envy it.

    In my own opinion, Jesus himself neither forces anyone to believe, nor punishes if you do wrong against him. However, if what you do may harm others, community, and damage the common good, which God created, God sends His servants just like in the biblical history to reinstate the good. Therefore, light will shine in darkness, faith is like that lantern in the dark. As long as your oil of faith is filled and refilled with God’s grace through sacramental life, your lamp will shine.

    May all human heart be nurtured and received the divine love and inspirations, and open to his call for holiness. Holiness is the cause for sanctity of life and happiness which only God can give and all human heart desires. But human freewill sometimes becomes an impediment for one to attend.

    Henry Thang Pham

  4. Mary Vallely says:

    Richard Rohr in this morning’s reflection:
    “As we see in politics in the United States, most people only know how to love people who are like themselves with regard to their race, their nationality, their religion, or their political party. Thomas Merton especially warned about the phenomenon we know in our day as ‘Christian nationalism.’ When belief in country and religion merge as one, the alternative way of Jesus takes a back seat.”
    Certainly something for us all to take on board, not just American Catholics.

    Brendan says, “for most Irish Catholics faith tends to be cultural rather than theological, private rather than public, respecting individual conscience rather than enforcing Catholic principles on others, letting people use their intelligence rather than telling them what to do.”

    How is it then that many Irish American Catholics are supporters of Trump, and not just those Catholics who fear losing immense wealth under a Biden administration? Many Catholics here are also anti-Biden because they believe he is pro-abortion which we know he is not. A number of those involved in the pro-birth movement seem to share some of the qualities of the Trump supporters, a deep condemnation of others who hold different views, an inherent self-righteousness which borders on arrogance and a lack of charity. Maybe that seems unfair but I find some of the language and tactics used intimidating and lacking in love like those of many of the Trump supporters.

    Joe Biden’s faith has certainly helped to make him the man he is today but it is also the fact that he has shown that the suffering he endured can bring a more Christ-like understanding and compassion towards others. May the Holy Spirit continue to inspire him as he carries the hopes of the world on his 78-year-old shoulders.

  5. Paddy+Ferry says:

    All very well said, Mary.

    It is also now very important that we begin to differentiate between those who are genuinely pro-life and those who are just pro-birth.
    We should be thankful to Sr. Joan Chittister for first alerting us to the difference.

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.