The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Biden’s Catholicism is all about healing. Now, he will lead a suffering America.

President-elect Joe Biden leaving morning church service at St. Joseph On the Brandywine in Wilmington, DE on November 15, 2020. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Pitching himself as president, Joe Biden promised to heal America’s hurting soul. His experiences with suffering and healing were well known, including the deaths of his wife and two of his children, his struggle against stuttering and many political losses. On a bigger stage than ever, Biden was trying to show the country how he did it.

Through his Catholic faith.

“For me, faith, it’s all about hope and purpose and strength,” Biden said in a February video ad. “Faith sees best in the dark.”

“Weeping may endure for the night, but joy cometh in the morning,” he quoted from the Book of Psalms in October.

Now, Biden will lead a nation deeply in need of healing — with soaring coronavirus cases, thousands dying daily and millions out of work and hunkered down in isolation. But he is facing not one America but two, each claiming with new religious fervor that God and righteousness are on its side.

As divided as any are Biden’s own people, U.S. Catholics, with millions who don’t even see him as a legitimate Catholic at all, because of his support for abortion access and LGBT equality.

The question is how the country will adjust to a man whose faith doesn’t feature literal Bible-waving promises to “save Christianity” or threats that political opponents might eliminate God (all Trumpian moments).

Biden presents a less common image: a devout, churchgoing liberal. The country will soon observe for the first time a president who goes to Mass every Sunday, plus on Catholic feast days, and sprinkles conversation casually with scripture, religious hymns and references to religious history but describes faith’s purpose in general, inclusive terms — as sustenance for the weary, encouragement for the suffering and an obligation to welcome and care for one another.

Biden could redefine what it means to be a Catholic in good standing. Catholics are divided on whether that is a good thing.

Can Biden heal today’s America?

Catholicism and its structures — its poetry, humor, teachings, rituals — have always been how Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. has understood healing, others and himself.

“Catholicism and family provide the substructure of his life. … That’s his whole conception of how society works,” said Evan Osnos, a writer for the New Yorker who recently published a book on Biden and his 2020 run for president. “It’s more personal than political. That’s what separates him from 2021 in Washington, D.C., where there are few ways in which religion is not part of politics. Biden doesn’t go out of his way to make it that.”

A confident faith

“I think he’ll try very hard like he always does at everything to bring people together and build bridges,” said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., a Pennsylvania Democrat who grew up in the same Catholic community of Scranton as Biden. “He’ll have more patience than I would have.”

Millions of Americans hungry for a faith focused on healing and inclusion will embrace it — especially on the left, where believers have felt trampled by the religious right into nonexistence since the 1970s.

Millions of others will reject Biden’s version of religiosity, one that’s less tied to doctrine, less likely to honor religious conservatives’ legal demands, less invested in America as a Christian nation. This is problematic for many on the right. A 2020 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found sharp partisan divides on the issue of religious diversity, with 43 percent of Republicans preferring the country to be made up “primarily” of Christians, compared with 16 percent of Democrats.

Some further to Biden’s left will also bemoan his unwillingness to draw a direct line from the gospels to policy changes like free higher education and universal health care.

But what makes Biden different, says Villanova University theologian Massimo Faggioli — whose spiritual biography of the president-elect is being published this month — is that he’s unapologetic.

“Joe Biden is a Catholic in the public square who doesn’t take lectures from bishops about what being Catholic is about. This is totally new,” Faggioli said.

His desire to be a uniter will be tested quickly on the religious front. On Jan. 29, nine days after Biden’s inauguration, one of the most-watched events on the annual Catholic calendar will take place – the March For Life, which marks, and protests, the Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade. Normally tens of thousands of mostly Catholic abortion opponents rally on the National Mall, though this year the event will be virtual, due to the coronavirus and security concerns. The march has become heavily Republican in recent years, filled with abortion opponents willing to overlook President Trump’s record-breaking number of executions and his laissez-faire approach to a virus that has killed hundreds of thousands in the United States. In 2020, Trump became the first U.S. president to speak live at the march. This year, it will undoubtedly feature many speakers and signs challenging Biden’s faith.

But Biden has long pushed back on the idea that, for him, faith must lead to policies.

“I’m prepared to accept doctrine on a whole range of issues as a Catholic. ... I’m prepared to accept as a matter of faith — my wife and I, my family — the issue of abortion. But what I’m not prepared to do is impose a rigid view, a precise view ... that is born out of my faith, on other people who are equally God-fearing, equally as committed to life,” Biden told the Jesuit magazine America in a 2015 videotaped interview.

Yet Biden has bound up his promises to make significant social change in areas from health care to the environment with that to “restore the soul of the nation.” If he is a healer, Biden has an epic pastoral challenge.

Early views

The shaping of Biden’s religiosity stems from two sources — his family and his era.

He was raised in working-class, Irish-Catholic communities, where faith routines and Catholic institutions such as schools and parishes were everything. When Biden talks about his Catholic upbringing, he usually repeats the word “dignity” multiple times. The dignity of work. The dignity of the poor.

“My father would say, ‘The cardinal sin of all sins is the abuse of power,’” Biden told America editor Matt Malone in the 2015 interview. “Whether it’s a man raising his hand to a woman, whether it’s economic power being evoked and asserted over someone else, whether it is the government abusing its power. And that’s how I look at what this is all about.”

Biden was a young adult during the Second Vatican Council, when Catholicism was deliberately opening to the world — with new languages for prayer and new relations with other faiths, among many other changes.

He’s a Catholic born in that period when Catholicism was exiting the Catholic ghetto. It’s the end of the subculture,” Faggioli said. He grew up with “a Catholicism that no longer exists.”

Biden thought about becoming a priest when he was 12, during an era when most Irish American Catholic youth saw priests and nuns as heroes. He raised the idea again to his mother in high school, and then to the Delaware bishop in the 1970s, after his wife and daughter died.

Aside from politics, the priesthood “was the only other thing I ever thought about,” Biden told journalist Jules Witcover for Witcover’s 2010 biography of the then-vice president. Each time it was more of a concept than a serious pursuit. “Girls got in the way,” Biden said with a laugh.

Settling on a career in government, he told a group of young Catholic volunteers during a lecture in 1992, was a “means to fight the injustices that his faith taught him to work to overcome,” reported a July profile in the National Catholic Reporter.

Griever in chief

The role of Biden’s Catholicism — prayer, as well as Catholic teachings about the role and purpose of suffering — in helping him survive the deaths of his young wife and daughter in the 1970s and then his son Beau, of brain cancer in 2015, is well known. He often uses the words “solace” and “comfort” when asked about the role of his faith. He is quick to talk with others who are pained by loss or struggle.

The Rev. Leo O’Donovan, a former Georgetown University president, described to the National Catholic Reporter the moment when Biden asked him to lead the funeral Mass for Beau.

“The priest’s first words to Biden were, ‘Joe, I am so sorry,’ before he himself erupted into tears,” according to the publication. “He began to comfort me. … He became the pastor there,” O’Donovan told NCR.

As strong as Biden’s attachment is to Catholic beliefs and culture, his idea of religiosity is pluralistic.

Rabbi Michael Beals, a Delaware cleric whom Biden calls “my rabbi,” met Biden 14 years ago when the then-senator came without fanfare to sit shiva — a visit to relatives of the dead during the week-long period of Jewish mourning — for a longtime, small-amount donor. Then, six years ago, at a party at the vice-presidential mansion for the Jewish High Holidays, Beals offered to bless Biden.

“He bowed his head the way a Jew never would. I put my palms on his forehead, like I would for my children, and it was such a moment. He really has a sense for respect for religion, religious leaders, deep faith. And his faith isn’t a designer label. He is a Catholic but he treated me no differently than he would have a priest,” Beals said, noting that Biden has his own black yarmulke.

All three of Biden’s adult children were married to Jewish spouses at some point. His wife, Jill Biden, attends church with him but is a Presbyterian.

Life in D.C.

It’s not yet clear where Biden will attend Mass regularly as president. During the pre-inauguration period, he has been going weekly to St. Joseph on the Brandywine, near his home in Wilmington, Del.

In Washington, where Biden lived for eight years as vice president, he attended Mass in different places, including Dahlgren Chapel at Georgetown and Holy Trinity Parish, said the Rev. Kevin O’Brien, who as a vice president at Georgetown got to know Biden starting in 2006. O’Brien celebrated Mass with Biden on the days of his two inaugurations as vice president.

Because of coronavirus restrictions, Biden probably won’t be able to attend Mass in a parish at first, said some of his faith advisers, and he will probably wind up celebrating it at the White House. After that, it’s hard to say.

Biden’s churchgoing ways haven’t remotely won over many of his fellow Catholics, particularly conservative ones who call him a heretic. Approval of Biden among Catholics is closely linked to partisan identity, and he only narrowly won the Catholic vote in November, by 52 percent to Trump’s 47 percent — compared with about 80 percent of Catholics who cast ballots for John F. Kennedy in 1960.

The rifts among U.S. Catholics have been building since Vatican II’s liberalizing changes, and then Pope Francis’s 2013 election and the arrival of a role model who puts inclusion and religious diversity over doctrinal clarity and an emphasis on abortion.

Some Catholics worry — or hope, depending on their perspective — that Biden could influence the U.S. church.

“What’s happened with Catholics is, we got subsumed by [White] evangelicals because of the political interests,” said Anthea Butler, a religion professor at the University of Pennsylvania who sat on Biden’s Catholic advisory groups. “But the ways in which he’s speaking about the poor — this is straight-up Catholic social teaching, and you can’t get away from that.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in November created a working group to deal with the “difficult” situation of the second-ever Catholic president being a strong advocate for policies the church opposes on abortion and LGBT legal rights. The bishops also noted areas of potential collaboration on immigration, climate change and racism.

“I’d hope [the bishops] would make judgments about Joe Biden’s presidency that take into account the whole social teaching mission of the church, not just picking a few issues like abortion,” Casey said.

But to Jayd Henricks, a former top lobbyist for the bishops, Biden creates a crisis: He “undermines the prophetic work of the Church and her call to witness the truth and love of Jesus Christ,” Henricks wrote last month in First Things. “The bishops’ crisis in this situation is not a political crisis. It is a crisis of authority, a crisis of identity, and a crisis of faith.”

Henricks identifies the eye of the storm of that crisis as the giving of Holy Communion, the way to “save one’s soul,” he writes. He concludes that U.S. bishops should deny this to Biden and thus “provide clear guidance ... on the dignity and seriousness of the moral life.”

However, Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington and a newly minted cardinal, has already said he will not deny Communion.

As he prepares to assume the presidency, Biden has focused on faith as solace. In his Nov. 7 victory speech, he quoted a hymn beloved by his late son, “On Eagle’s Wings,” that paints God as protector, holding “you in the palm of his hand.”

Butler says Americans should prepare for such references “to be everywhere” in a Biden administration. “Biden’s thing is: There is suffering in the world, and Catholicism looks grief and suffering right in the face.”