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.