Biden is arguably the most observant president in decades, and his faith is a core part of his identity. He rarely misses Mass. He crosses himself in public. He quotes scripture, he cites hymns and he clutches rosary beads ahead of key decisions.
But now, the nation’s most prominent Catholic is at odds with many of the American bishops of his church. He has been the catalyst for an explosive disagreement that had been playing out for years, over whether Communion should be granted to politicians whose public stances go against church doctrine, and on Friday they took a step toward barring Biden and others from the Eucharist.
The move puts Biden, who rarely discusses his Catholicism, at the center not only of a political fight between conservatives and liberals but also a church battle between traditionalists and reformers. In that sense he is aligned with Pope Francis as world-renowned liberal Catholics, a phenomenon that presents a challenge to traditionalists.
“If there are Catholic icons in this world and this country, they are Pope Francis and Joe Biden,” said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University theology professor and author of “Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States.” “That is seen by some bishops as a threat, because their position is much more marginal now.”
Biden has long looked up to Francis, who traditional Catholic priests consider too liberal.
The two men — an Argentine Jesuit and a Scranton-born pol — in some ways share similar philosophies, aligned on climate change, social change and economic disparities. Each is attempting to break with a more rigid predecessor in ways they believe are more inclusive, but which anger those who view the changes as too permissive.
“The convergence of a relatively progressive pope and a moderately progressive United States president causes some alarms for some of the so-called traditional or conservative Catholics, who feel their positioning in the faith community is under some threat,” said Mark J. Rozell, who co-edited the book “Catholics and U.S. Politics After the 2016 Elections: Understanding the ‘Swing Vote.’ ”
“How does Biden respond to it?” added Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “I have no idea. It puts the president in a very difficult spot.”
For now he’s responding by not saying much about it. Asked on Friday afternoon about the decision by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the possibility he could be denied Communion, Biden paused.
“That’s a private matter,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Biden spent his early childhood in Scranton, Pa., where it was not unusual to see crucifixes in stores, nuns on the street and priests in the neighborhood. Sundays always started with the entire family trooping to St. Paul’s for Mass. The future president memorized the Lord’s Prayer and Apostles’ Creed, and could recite almost the entire Baltimore Catechism.
His grandfather taught him to say the Rosary, and would kiss him good night while reminding him to say three Hail Marys for purity. He played Catholic Youth Organization football and attended Catholic schools.
“Wherever there were nuns, there was home,” Biden wrote in his book “Promises to Keep.” “I’m as much as a cultural Catholic as I am a theological Catholic. My idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion.”
That did not necessarily mean unwavering fealty to Catholic doctrine — an approach that is now putting him at odds with the bishops. “It’s not as much the Bible, the Beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, or the prayers I learned,” Biden wrote. “It’s the culture. The nuns are one of the reasons I’m still a practicing Catholic.”
The nuns, he said, stood up for him when his classmates made fun of his stutter, or called him “Dash” not because he was a fast athlete but because he struggled to speak with clarity.
When he met his first wife, Neilia, her parents wanted them to break up because he was Catholic. Eventually they dropped their objections and agreed not only to the marriage, but for it to be officiated by a Catholic priest.
Biden talks less about the social doctrines of his church and more about broad philosophies — helping those less fortunate, being a decent person. Despite his habit of quoting scripture (marking Juneteenth on Thursday, he recited, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning”) and his casual asides about the nuns of his childhood, he has been reluctant to discuss his faith in detail.
The contrast with former president Donald Trump is striking. Trump was not known as a churchgoer or religious individual, saying he could not remember ever asking God for forgiveness and downplaying the importance of Communion. But he aggressively courted conservative Christians, winning their praise for his antiabortion stance and his nomination of conservative judges.
At times Trump made especially dramatic gestures, like leaving the White House during a Black Lives Matter protest to hold up a Bible in front of St. John’s Church. During the 2020 campaign, Trump warned that Biden would “hurt the Bible, hurt God” if elected. At the Republican National Convention, former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz called Biden “a Catholic in name only.”
Biden, in contrast, sometimes seems to downplay his own piety.
“I am not suggesting to you that I am a deeply religious man, but I deeply believe in my religion,” Biden told Irish America magazine in 1987. He added, “I believe that some real wisdom has accrued over 1,987 continuous years of Catholicism — as long as you take it in a way that understands that there are significant mistakes that my church has made, but that it has an amazing resilience which I admire.”
Biden said at that time that he never missed Mass, though he could not explain exactly why. One of the first questions that his mother would ask when he called her, he later recounted, was whether he’d been to church.
“At any rate, I practice my religion,” he said. “It’s no big deal.”
Perhaps at the time, when he was only a young senator, it was no big deal. But now, as the second Catholic president in American history after John F. Kennedy, it is clearly a much bigger deal.
The debate among the U.S. bishops often views Biden’s faith through the lens of abortion rights, a topic that has been divisive for the church and problematic for Biden. During the 2012 vice-presidential debate with Republican nominee Paul Ryan, also a Catholic, Biden said he personally accepts the church’s position on abortion, “but I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews.”
At the same time, many Democrats have long said that Biden is not supportive enough of abortion rights, and it was only during his 2020 presidential campaign that he came out in support of federal funding for abortions.
In the past, Biden’s pro-choice position has caused some bishops to deny him Communion. Catholic schools have not allowed him to speak, and when he was selected in 2016 to receive one of the highest honors that Notre Dame can confer, it triggered an uproar among some on the campus.
One member of a group opposing the honor, University Faculty for Life, was future Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
But Biden’s stance also reflects a change among many of those who now attend America’s Catholic churches. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 56 percent of Catholics support the right to abortion in all or most cases.
Catholics who are registered to vote are almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, according to Pew. Although the growing segment of Hispanic Catholics overwhelmingly lean toward Democrats, there has been a steady erosion of the number of White Catholics who support the party.
In 2008, when Biden was Barack Obama’s running mate, the Democratic ticket won Catholics 54 to 45 percent, according to exit polls. But during their 2012 reelection campaign, Catholics were evenly split.
The numbers worsened for Democrats in 2016, when 52 percent of Catholics supported Trump, compared with 45 percent for Hillary Clinton, according to a Pew Research Center survey. In the November election, Catholic voters were about evenly split between Biden and Trump.
If Biden’s Catholicism is not entirely about adherence to doctrine, he is not alone. In a 2019 Pew poll, for example, almost 70 percent of Catholics said they do not believe in transubstantiation, the ideas that the bread and wine used for Communion becomes the body and blood of Jesus.
“My religion is just an enormous sense of solace,” Biden told Stephen Colbert during a 2015 interview. “What my faith has done is it sort of takes everything about my life — with my parents and my siblings and all the comforting things. . . . All the good things that have happened, have happened around the culture of my religion and the theology of my religion. And I don’t know how to explain it more than that.”
Faggioli said that less-traditional approach to religion has likely inflamed church leaders in part because Biden is so visibly Catholic and churchgoing, in essence providing an alternative view of what it means to be Catholic.
“What is remarkable is the archbishops in the last seven months since he was elected are really trying to find a way to discipline him,” Faggioli said. “And Joe Biden has totally ignored them.”