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Joe Biden, the pope and America's Catholic Church

January 24, 2021

There is much enthusiasm around the world for the 46th US president — and considerable interest in his faith. Joe Biden is a Catholic and a friend of Pope Francis. But he is also under pressure from fundamentalists.

Pope Francis and Joe Biden smiling and shaking hands after an audience in 206
Joe Biden is a devout CatholicImage: Catholic Press Photo/picture alliance

On his inauguration day, Joe Biden's first stop was Catholic Mass. During his inauguration ceremony, it was a Jesuit priest who invoked God's blessing, and in his first address as president the 78-year-old led prayers for the more than 400,000 coronavirus dead in the US. And when, later in the day, the cameras followed Biden to his desk in the White House, among the many photos that could be seen on the window sill in the background was one of Biden with Pope Francis.

The new president of the United States of America is a Catholic — only the second Catholic to be elected to America's highest office after John F. Kennedy in 1960. But in recent times, a significant change in the US has seen the Catholic Church becoming the country's single largest community of faith.

"When Joe Biden was born and baptized, the Catholic Church was still located very much on the fringe of the American mainstream. But between the 1940s and 1960s, it moved rapidly into that mainstream," church historian Massimo Faggioli told Deutsche Welle. "Biden is a traditional Catholic, but not a traditionalist. His faith was deeply influenced both by the papacy of John XXIII (1958-1963) and the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)."

Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden praying in Church on Inauguration Day
Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, attended Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle on Inauguration DayImage: Evan Vucci/AP/picture alliance

A culture war

Fifty-year-old Faggioli, an Italian by birth, has for many years held teaching posts in the US. The publication of his new book in both the US and Italy was timed to coincide with the inauguration ceremony. It is not an academic work, but an analysis of current religious tensions in the US and especially the mood among America's Catholics.

Faggioli argues that sections of the Catholic Church in the US  are drifting toward fundamentalism, and he describes how a number of bishops are now openly challenging the authority of Pope Francis. He even talks of the seeds of a "schism," a "culture war," a war against modern society and values.

Faggioli focuses on America's initial response to Kennedy in 1960. As a descendant of Irish Catholics, he was met with widespread hostility. "For the first Catholic president, his being a Catholic was a problem for important sectors of the Protestant establishment of the nation. For the second one, the country has no problem with [Biden] being Catholic, but a not insignificant segment of the Catholic Church in the US — from among its bishops, its clergy, and its faithful — has a problem with his brand of Catholicism," he writes.

For them, the Biden who in recent years backed same-sex marriage while failing to fulminate vehemently against the right to abortion is simply too much of a moderate.

Cover of book on Joe Biden by Massimo Faggioli
Massimo Faggioli published his book to coincide with the inauguration of Joe BidenImage: Bayard


Traditionalist and neo-fundamentalist Catholics have adopted a critical position toward the Vatican Council, which until 1965 recognized and respected religious freedom and human rights. Behind these new strands in church thinking, Faggioli identifies a fundamentalist approach that had a major impact on earlier Evangelical strands of thought in the US that later paved the way for the rise of former President Donald Trump.

Faggioli goes on to describe how many Catholic bishops in today's US have been so profoundly influenced by Popes John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013) that they no longer look toward a bipartisan conservatism, but instead simply and almost exclusively toward the Republican party. After his election, Benedict encouraged neo-conservative Catholics in the US to transform themselves into a neo-integralist and traditionalist movement — a version of Catholicism "that is no longer simply conservative or post-liberal, but openly anti-liberal and illiberal." Faggioli calls it a "Tea Party Catholicism," whose supporters were drawn to Trump.

By contrast, said the author, Biden stands for an ecumenical Catholicism. "It's a non-intellectual but not an anti-intellectual Catholicism: a popular faith with pop-cultural overtones," said Faggioli.

'Coup attempt'

The reactionary stance adopted by many US bishops goes hand-in-hand with the shunning of the current pope or open opposition to him. And it is remarkable to note, how, over many pages, Faggioli maps out how closely interwoven the fates of Pope Francis and President Biden are. In the summer of 2018, media pundits and other experts worldwide were astonished to witness the former nuncio to the US, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, publishing a paper that included a massive attack on the Roman Curia and called on Pope Francis to resign. All allegations were later nullified.

Pennsylvania sexual abuse

But the accusations met with sympathy from a small but noisy sector of the American Church, writes Faggioli. "What was in fact a coup attempt against the pope was cast to look like a moral crusade against homosexuality among the clergy," he said. The onslaught was, according to Faggioli, publicly backed by two dozen US bishops. "None of those bishops has ever apologized or retracted this support … These are, not coincidentally, the same bishops who seek to delegitimize Biden's Catholicism."

Faggioli sees the looming demise of and division within the US church as part of a global reorientation of the Catholic Church under the current pope. "While the United States remains unavoidably central in defining the West, Francis realizes that the 21st century papacy is no longer the leader of a Church identified with the West." Which explains why he, for instance, seeks dialogue with China or countries with large Muslim populations, who would otherwise be adamantly opposed to policies coming out of Washington.

Pope Francis reaching out to migrants on a visit to Morocco in 2019
Pope Francis has realized that he is not the leader of a Church identified with the WestImage: picture-alliance/AP/G. Borgia

The author's work on his new book ended at the turn of the year and focuses on the US bishops' hemming and hawing over Biden's election victory in November, the question of whether or not to even acknowledge the result, and whether or not to congratulate the winner and turn away from Trump. The pope in Rome reacted much more quickly, offering his congratulations.

It was equally fascinating and shocking to see these impressions confirmed by events on inauguration day itself. Francis congratulated Biden in a long and clearly heartfelt message from Rome. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, meanwhile, sent its own stinging statement. It did include congratulations, but also admonitions and demands, all of which prompted the bishops to break out among themselves in public acrimony.

For Faggioli, the infighting that has gripped practically all areas of American society — and not just the Catholic Church — represents the beginning of the end for the American Dream. "We could be faced with a genetic mutation of Christianity in the United States. This would mean not just the end of the experiment that has been, for two centuries now, the particularly American brand of Catholicism," he said.

And Biden, the Catholic? Biden the Democrat? Faggioli highlights one key factor behind the resilience of democracy in recent decades: The Catholic Church in the US, he points out, has always been made up of highly diverse ethnic and societal milieus.

This article was translated from German.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C