By Paul Elie
A few hours after agitators incited by President Donald Trump breached the Capitol, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, addressed the reconvened representatives, along with a vast television audience. She denounced the “shameful attack on our democracy” and resolved that the House would complete its certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the Electoral College. Pelosi, a Catholic, then took a religious turn. “Today, January 6th, is the Feast of the Epiphany,” she said. “On this day of revelation, let us pray that this instigation to violence will provide an epiphany for our country to heal.” She also quoted a prayer often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me a channel of thy peace; where there is hatred, let us bring love; where there is despair, let us bring hope.” Biden has quoted this prayer often. Three weeks earlier, when the electoral votes were first certified, he had offered the saint’s words—“where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is darkness, light”—as something like a mission statement for his Presidency.
Those invocations represent a striking turnabout. In the past four years, several million traditionalist American Catholics have made the impious, twice-divorced, religiously tone-deaf celebrity mogul Donald Trump their standard-bearer. Now progressive Catholics are placing their hopes in Biden, who is only the second Catholic President, after John F. Kennedy. Biden’s unfailing attendance at Sunday Mass, his visits to the churchyard graves of his first wife and daughter (who were killed in a car crash, in 1972), and his practice of carrying a rosary are taken as emblems of that public servant’s deep faith. His late-in-life election, moderate temperament, and just-folks manner prompt comparisons with Pope Francis—even as the new President’s support for abortion rights and gay marriage has prompted the head of the U.S. bishops to form a “working group” to examine his positions, and several bishops to declare that he should be denied Communion. (During the campaign, Biden turned against the Hyde Amendment, which proscribes the use of federal funds to support abortion services, after decades of tacit support for it.) Set the rosary aside, and old-school Joe Biden is the kind of flexible, independent-minded Catholic whom many bishops have spent their careers taking to task—and many progressive Catholics see as akin to themselves. In a new book, Massimo Faggioli, an Italian who is a professor of theology at Villanova University, near Philadelphia, observes that “Biden’s presidency arouses not only political expectations but also religious, even salvific ones. This Catholic president is now called upon to heal the moral damage inflicted upon the nation by Trump, the pandemic, and globalization.”
The events of January 6th upped the salvific ante and the brief for Biden to be a “Reconciler-in-Chief.” With the election to the Senate of the Reverend Raphael Warnock, a Baptist pastor from Georgia, some envision a resurgence of the religious progressivism that shaped the civil-rights movement. Catholics hope that the Church, with its moral authority diminished owing to its bishops’ failings on clerical sexual abuse, can be a trusted actor in national affairs again—that it can counter the “ ‘zombie’ ideas” (as Faggioli calls them) of Christian nationalism. The hope is that the Biden Administration will invigorate American Catholicism, and vice versa.
Catholics have sought convergence between Rome and U.S. politics before, and the present political culture is partly shaped by such aspirations. In 1987, Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor (soon to convert to Catholicism), declared that a “Catholic moment” in American public life was at hand. The Reagan Administration had conjoined the President’s anti-Communist conservatism to that of Pope John Paul II, who, after conducting a nine-city U.S. tour, was at the apogee of his influence in this country. The Archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor, was as prominent as any senator or governor. Antonin Scalia had been seated on the Supreme Court. Through John Paul’s efforts, Catholicism was strongly identified with the struggle for political freedom and human rights in Soviet-controlled Poland. Neuhaus saw the moment as one in which the Roman Catholic Church in the United States would assume “its rightful role” in providing “a religiously informed public philosophy” to what he saw as an incoherent, decadent, post-sixties civil society.
Catholic theoconservatism has shaped Republican politics ever since, through an extensive network of political operatives, opinion-makers, academics, and philanthropists. It has set itself against the presentation of religious belief as merely a private matter, seen in a speech that Mario Cuomo gave in 1984, when he was governor of New York, in which he explained that, although as a Catholic he believed abortion to be wrong, he could not impose his beliefs on his constituents. Theocons disdain that position. In their view, a Catholic in public life should affirm his or her faith openly, strive to conform public policy to Church teachings, and reject the notion that the separation of church and state forces officials to check their faith at the door.
Today, outward measures suggest that a different Catholic moment is at hand. Six of the nine Supreme Court Justices are Catholics. So is Speaker Pelosi. So are at least eight of Biden’s Cabinet nominees. So is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Yet the terms of engagement have changed dramatically. The Church to which these people all belong is nearly as divided as the country, and American politics is now suffused with religion-as-public-philosophy, even as theocons decry, as the former Attorney General William Barr, a Catholic, did in 2019, the left’s “organized destruction” of traditional religion.
The appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court made the change manifest. Barrett, raised a Catholic in Louisiana, is a graduate of an all-girls Catholic high school and of Notre Dame Law School, whose faculty she later joined. Since childhood, she has belonged to the People of Praise, a Catholic movement with a structure that places female members under the authority of men. A traditionalist—mentored by Scalia and publicly opposed to legal abortion—Barrett was a theocon’s dream high-court nominee. Yet, at her confirmation hearings for both the U.S. Court of Appeals, in 2017, and the Supreme Court, this past October, she took the Cuomo-esque position that theoconservatives have long derided: she insisted that her “personal convictions” and “policy preferences” should have no bearing on her rulings from the bench. (Nevertheless, last Tuesday, she joined the five other conservative Justices—three of them Catholics—in rejecting the argument that a Food and Drug Administration rule that women seeking to obtain the so-called abortion pills must do so in person from a health-care provider rather than by mail places an undue burden on those women during the pandemic, which has made doctors’ offices and clinics less accessible.)
Biden’s stance is something like the inverse of Barrett’s: as his public prominence has increased, he has grown more effusive about his Catholicism. In his memoir from 2007, “Promises to Keep,” he recalled that, fifteen years earlier, when asked to speak about faith and public service, at Georgetown University, where his son Hunter was a student, he hesitated: “It was a topic I had always shied away from because it makes me a little uncomfortable to carry religion into politics.” But the experience, he went on, made clear that Catholicism’s message about the perils of the abuse of power by the powerful had “always been the governing force in my political career.” His faith was prominent in the memoir itself, and in 2016, when he received Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, awarded to Catholics who have “enriched the heritage of humanity” through their work, he called it “the most meaningful award I’ve ever received in my life.” During the 2020 campaign, he traced his view on immigration to the Church’s “preferential option for the poor”—a favored expression of the Catholic left. Last June, in a eulogy for George Floyd, he cited “Catholic social doctrine, which taught me that faith without works is dead,” and quoted from the Catholic hymn “On Eagle’s Wings.”
Biden’s nondoctrinaire Catholicism is driving comparisons to Pope Francis, who has vexed traditionalist U.S. bishops much the way Biden has. Shortly after his election, in 2013, Francis said that “we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” suggesting that the Church had become “obsessed” with those topics. In 2019, he expressed support for gay civil unions. Last week, he announced that women are now expressly permitted to serve on the altar during Mass, thereby rejecting the traditionalist view that sacramental authority belongs to priests, who, according to Church teaching, must be male.
Shortly after Election Day, Francis sent Biden an inscribed copy of his new book, “Let Us Dream.” The progressive Catholic commentariat had already lit up with exhortations about the ways the new President might draw on the Pope’s key themes—mercy, concern for the poor, attention to the common good—to undo the Trump Administration’s inhumane policies. But it’s worth noting that, on many issues, Francis is much more progressive than Biden. In his 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” the Pope traced the destruction of the planet to globalized liberal capitalism, in which strong countries put “selfishness” in place of the common good. In October, in “Fratelli Tutti,” he spelled out a view of universal human solidarity to extend his vision of a society in need of dramatic reordering. His positions bring to mind those of the self-described democratic socialists who are the architects of the Green New Deal—which Biden distanced himself from in a debate with Trump, saying, “The Green New Deal is not my plan.”
How, then, might President Biden draw on his faith as he takes office and leads the country? There are two obvious options. The first is that he could move to the center, through an appeal to his Catholic roots. On the Sunday after the riot at the Capitol, Pope Francis encouraged public figures to “calm souls” and “promote national reconciliation.” Biden could use the language of faith—the human family, my brother’s keeper, a common destiny—to reach out to Republicans disaffected by the Trump-incited hard right, and gain their coöperation in containing the spread of COVID-19, doing the work of reconciliation in the process.
Alternatively, Biden could draw on Francis’s critique of globalized society to move the emboldened Democratic majorities in Congress emphatically leftward. He could cite the vastly popular Pope to help make the case for regular payments to pandemic-stricken families (a form of basic income), tax and banking reform, a national minimum-wage increase, debt forgiveness, and aggressive action on climate change. An obvious precedent is President Kennedy, who shifted left after his election, bolstered, in part, by the progressive teachings of Pope John XXIII.
Or he could combine the two options, taking an approach rooted in both Francis’s pontificate and his own career. Paradoxically, the Pope’s moderate temperament and reputation have served to advance his progressive positions. In the same way, Biden’s record as a centrist and his profile as a hymn-quoting churchgoer could give him cover as he tacks left, much as Francis has, using the language of the common good to advance policies—refreshed infrastructure, a green jobs program, health care for all—that would actually benefit the disaffected whites in the heartland who are presently hooked on Trump. Strong employment, social stability, and a government seen acting concretely for the common good would help bring about national reconciliation with a Franciscan accent. As a side effect, joint efforts between the Biden Administration and the Vatican—on the climate, immigration, and human rights—might prompt the Vatican to be more progressive in its approach to laypeople, women and gay people among them, in leadership positions.
Of course, Biden faces harsh opposition, not least from other Catholics. The morning of the Inauguration, as Biden went to St. Matthew the Apostle, the Catholic cathedral in the capital, for a Mass attended by Speaker Pelosi and other government figures, the Catholic bishops released a long missive by their conference president, Archbishop Jose Gomez, of Los Angeles, expressing an eagerness to work with the new President, but upbraiding him for holding positions “in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender” that “would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity,” and implying that Biden’s approach to Catholicism posed a threat to religious freedom. The same Catholic traditionalists who detest Pope Francis detest the new President, and spiteful right-wing resistance may block any progressive initiative from Biden, as it has blocked those of Francis in Rome.
In this moment, it’s strange to think of Joe Biden, for so long a workhorse legislator in a blue blazer, as a redemptive figure. It’s strange that progressives, who are generally leery of Vatican authority, are frankly hoping that American politics will be inspired by the Pope—and hoping that a Pope might move a Democratic President further to the left. It’s strange that a Church whose followers have been harmed and angered by decades of negligence on clerical sexual abuse can still be seen as a source of civic healing. And yet the second Catholic President can hardly afford not to draw on his religion; with the country wracked by a pandemic, a recession, and political violence, he is going to need every source of reconciliation and moral authority available to him.
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