Joe Biden, the Bishops & Vatican II: The Battle Over the Brand of U.S. Catholicism
The election of the nation’s second Catholic president excited a brief media frisson in January. All the more because Joseph R. Biden Jr. recruited seven Catholics to his cabinet, this author was caught tweeting that “There never has been a more Catholic administration in U.S. history.” Mr. Biden himself, by his own quiet example, affirms this every day in the way that he talks about politics and the nation. I doubt he could cite the text, but often I think of how deeply Joe Biden seems to have absorbed the teaching of “Gaudium et Spes,” No. 40:
[T]he Church does not only communicate divine life to the human family but in some way casts the reflected light of that life over the entire earth, most of all by its healing and elevating impact on the dignity of the person, by the way in which it strengthens the seams of human society and imbues the everyday activity of persons with a deeper meaning and importance. Thus through her individual matters and her whole community, the Church believes she can contribute greatly toward making the human family and its history more human.
Mr. Biden personifies his generation of Catholics’ understanding of Catholicism as deeply, inextricably entwined with the life of the whole human family, a church that elevates and ennobles every human life simply by being present as a light for the whole world.
There are good reasons to be worried that the bold experimental spirit of Vatican II, its hope for a church engaged with the world, is at its end.
Joe Biden was 19 years old when Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council on Oct. 11, 1962. In 1966 Mr. Biden married Neilia Hunter in a just barely post-Vatican II church, saw his first two sons and first daughter baptized in the new church environment and then mourned the loss of his wife and daughter in a car accident. Enduring a dark night of grief in those days, Mr. Biden eventually remarried and with the help of his second wife found his faith renewed in the church to which he remained close throughout the post-Vatican II era as his public profile and his new family grew. As much as many members of his generation (and perhaps more than most), Mr. Biden has a Catholic faith that appears to have been shaped by Vatican II and its optimistic engagement with the world.
The decades since the 1980s have brought a slow withering of the church’s optimism that has seen it settle into a more confrontational relationship to the modern world. Culture wars have signified an era during which Mr. Biden (counterculturally among American Catholics) retained his optimism and his cheerful, public Catholic faith.
When we think of the Biden era now just getting underway in this context, a question presents itself. For all the authenticity and beauty of Mr. Biden’s faith, abortion politics leaves many Catholics in our deeply divided church far from convinced that he is sincere. Moreover, at 78 years of age, Mr. Biden is a man from another time. The world toward which the council turned the church is different. So is the church.
With the Catholic Church now besieged by scandal, financial collapse and an extraordinary exodus of the faithful hastened by the Covid-19 pandemic, there are good reasons to be worried that the bold experimental spirit of Vatican II, its hope for a church engaged with the world, is at its end in these Biden years. Many Catholics could be tempted to indulge hopes that the Biden administration could be a new beginning for the council’s spirit of engagement with the world if Mr. Biden can excite Americans about Catholicism—while at the same time exciting Catholics about the goodness of our political obligations.
It just as easily could be the last hurrah.
There is an important ecclesiological question at stake here: Who owns the brand?
Who owns the brand?
The Biden administration already has been notable for many reasons, but one of them surely must be how Mr. Biden’s presidency has underscored the ruptured relationship between Catholics in public life who are pro-choice and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Tensions have been growing around the participation of Catholics in public life since John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, when several U.S. bishops (mostly in places Mr. Kerry never would visit) loudly announced that Mr. Kerry should not present himself for Communion in their dioceses because he is pro-choice.
That old argument heated up quickly once Mr. Biden entered the 2020 race. Mere days later, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence tweeted that Mr. Biden is “a great disappointment” as a Catholic in public life. Mr. Biden was denied Communion at a parish in Florence, S.C., while he was on the campaign trail in October 2019. Bishop Tobin later suggested during the campaign that Mr. Biden is not a “real Catholic,” a sentiment echoed by Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City and other bishops. In April 2021, word came that the U.S. bishops may attempt to authorize a pastoral statement on “Eucharistic coherence” during their June meeting, a document that surely never would have been contemplated had Mr. Biden not won the White House.
The central question at stake in this ongoing argument was framed well by Archbishop Naumann—“[Mr. Biden] doesn’t have the authority to teach what it means to be Catholic—that’s our responsibility as bishops,” Archbishop Naumann told The Associated Press. “Whether intentional or not, he’s trying to usurp our authority.” Joe Biden as much as Nancy Pelosi (or, for that matter, Stephen Colbert, Martin Sheen and Jeannie and Jim Gaffigan) has a public image defined by his Catholic faith. These lay Catholics, whose names are known to most Americans and whose Catholic faith is closely identified with them, pose “a unique problem” for Catholic bishops. Since the time of the early church, bishops have been the undisputed, authoritative spokespersons for the Catholic Christian faith. The existence of media, celebrity and popular politics in our time has created a different sort of situation, which finds many lay Catholics exerting more influence.
There is an important ecclesiological question at stake here, a question about the identity of the church that is easy to understand when we ask it this somewhat unorthodox way: Who owns the brand?
There is no getting around the fact that lay Catholics will be the ones who address the church to the world—primarily through sheer force of numbers.
A problem or a win?
In a very important sense, this problem is as much about the Second Vatican Council’s people of God ecclesiology set forth in “Lumen Gentium” as it is about the hopes for a church engaged with the world described in “Gaudium et Spes.” Especially in a modern world filled with educated, informed, voting citizens empowered to make all sorts of decisions about their lives that premodern women and men never could have dreamed of, there is no getting around the fact that lay Catholics will be the ones who address the church to the world—primarily through sheer force of numbers. Even as a phenomenon unfolding for the last five centuries, this is a new situation for the church. It seems to take some getting used to.
Feeling that they no longer control the Catholic “brand” in public consciousness the way they used to, bishops have looked to what they do control: access to the sacraments. Bishops who have stressed this approach have made plain how much this dynamic governs the consciousness of many church leaders. But there is another way to look at the situation.
Shouldn’t Catholics see the influence lay Catholics like Joe Biden have over the Catholic brand as a win? And shouldn’t bishops? Vatican II recognized that the participation of lay Catholics “is so necessary within Church communities that without it the apostolate of the pastors is often unable to achieve its full effectiveness.” Invigorating the role of the laity was an important goal of Vatican II, a cornerstone of its ecclesiology. The fact that Mr. Biden’s ardent Catholicism seems like a problem reveals the problem’s real nature.
An additional complication is that Mr. Biden is the president of the United States. He is not an actor or a comedian. He holds significant influence, shapes public policy and wields the considerable powers of his office. Yet no president is a king. Sometimes it seems as if Catholic bishops do not understand this, as we see when we examine closely the way they talk about public officials.
The existing theology we have around the state is suited better to monarchs who are above the law than to elected leaders who are bound by the rule of law.
A church leery of democracy
To see that clearly, a short exercise is helpful. Start with John Paul II’s encyclical “Centesimus Annus” (1991), which offers a serious engagement with modern economic, political and social life. In Chapter 5, “State and Culture,” the pope writes about “the need for a sound theory of the state” (No. 44) and praises “the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices” (No. 46). Follow footnote 93 from that sentence, which takes you to Sections 10 to 20 of Pope Pius XII’s Christmas Message of 1944, a wonderful document that recognized a growing “concentration of dictatorial power” against which World War II had been waged. Pius expressed hope for the success of democracy as well as concern that “the masses” are susceptible to manipulation by “anyone who exploits [the people’s] instincts and impressions,” and asked an apt question for the Biden era: “What character should distinguish men who hold the reins of government in a democracy?” Thinking about a new problem in a democratic age, Pius clearly meant Mussolini and Hitler. But the question could as easily refer to Donald Trump, or a pro-choice Democrat like Joe Biden.
But stay with our little exercise. There is only one citation in this whole stretch of Pope Pius’s Christmas Message. It takes us to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical “Libertas” (1888), where Leo wrote, “the Church does not disapprove of any of the various forms of government, provided they be per se capable of securing the good of the citizens” (No. 44). “Libertas” was the first truly serious engagement with forms of government like ours by a church whose institutions were nurtured in the Middle Ages. Pope Leo was preoccupied particularly by events in France since the revolution a century earlier and the hostility that French society had expressed toward the church. For that reason, the encyclical has a slightly different flavor than a participant in a modern democracy might expect. For example, Pope Pius did quote it correctly in his Christmas address—“the Church does not disapprove of any of the various forms of government”—but Pope Pius omitted that sentence’s beginning: “Again, it is not of itself wrong to prefer a democratic form of government” (No. 44). In Pope Pius’s text, the attitude toward democracy sounds much more hesitant.
The point of the exercise is to demonstrate, by peeling back layers of text, that the hesitation about democracy still is here—and the exercise could be begun from many other church documents, including documents of the Second Vatican Council.“Libertas” includes citations of Scripture, of St. Augustine of Hippo and of St. Thomas Aquinas. All are authoritative sources, but all also come to us from worlds that existed centuries before constitutional government in its modern sense. The existing theology we have around the state is suited better to monarchs who are above the law than to elected leaders who are bound by the rule of law.
When we wonder why people are leaving our churches, we should reflect on the church’s inarticulate responses to challenges like the one brought by the modern constitutional state.
Accompaniment or antagonism
Leo’s purpose was to distinguish between “natural liberty” and “moral liberty,” a distinction that we still find in Pope John Paul’s more contemporary teaching—both in “Centesimus Annus” and in “Veritatis Splendor” (1993). Certainly it is true that a majority’s voting to approve something does not make it morally right. But when (or more importantly, how) should a Catholic holding the “reins of government” approach that problem in a democracy where a majority of citizens are not Catholic? We find no good answer. The question still hangs in the air, and the U.S. bishops’ struggle with a Biden presidency is the result.
Despite St. John Paul’s acknowledgment of “the need for a sound theory of the state,” we do not have one—at least, not one that addresses the modern constitutional state as it is.
There can be no new beginning for the council’s spirit of engagement with the world until there is some effort to grapple theologically with and take seriously all of the implications of constitutional government and democracy as permanent features of modern life. The ongoing controversy about abortion and Catholics in public life is only the most obvious manifestation of the problem. There are more subtle manifestations.
The church cannot control public policy outcomes, and it is a mistake to try to control them—especially by withholding sacraments from Catholics in public life.
Pope Francis has referred to the problem of a church that is too “self-referential.” When we wonder why people are leaving our churches, we should reflect on the church’s inarticulate responses to challenges like the one brought by the modern constitutional state. People will not respond to a presentation of the Gospel that seems alien to the world they recognize. A church so removed from the world is a church headed toward the last hurrah. That does not mean that the church will go away. That cannot happen. But the church can lose its relevance, its vital purchase on human affairs. And not only can that happen, it is well underway.
The democratic way of life may be under pressure in some corners of the world, but in general the question of its establishment and viability is long settled. It is so ingrained in how everyone in the world thinks that even the pope said recently, “The people are sovereign” (and he has said it more than once). That is not a magisterial teaching; these were off-the-cuff statements. But writers have been condemned by the church for saying as much. A pope saying it now demonstrates how deep the roots of democracy have sunk into the world, and how badly the church needs to catch up and think about how we will address democratic life in a way that sounds credible to women and men of this time.
It must begin with acknowledging that the democratic process will go where it will go. Politics is a moral undertaking, but the political order is not exactly the same as the moral order. The church cannot control public policy outcomes, and it is a mistake to try to control them—especially by withholding sacraments from Catholics in public life. The church must do more subtle and more difficult work—the kind it knows how to do well: preach the Gospel, win the hearts of citizens by effective witness and change the world. To appear constantly in opposition to the world we hope to win over is a poor way to begin. Pope Francis reminds us the synodal way—walking with each other—is the better way. We must accompany democracy in order to build up the people who would choose the common good through democracy.
The Biden era is an opportunity to do this, not a problem. A president who so obviously wants to bring his Catholic faith to his public service is a great gift to the church, and crafting a theological way to help him (and others like him) is the most urgent task the church faces today. It is the difference between recapturing the fervor of the years that followed the Second Vatican Council—years that produced a wonderful ferment of Catholicism in the world that included the election of Karol Wojtyła—and letting the church become a culturally irrelevant vestige that seems to be holding on to the medieval world against the flow of a history that has rushed past it.
Whether to learn from Joe Biden’s experience as a faithful Catholic in public life and to accompany him as he continues to learn about what his faith demands from him is the choice before us. The public voice of the Catholic Church in the United States can have a new beginning if we have the boldness of faith and confidence in the Spirit to leap forward in the direction toward which Pope Francis is trying to shepherd us. In the alternative, those days are behind the church now, in which case the Biden Administration will be the last hurrah.
More from America on the reception of Holy Communion:
- Sam Sawyer, S.J.: No one can win the Communion wars over abortion
- Archbishop Samuel Aquila: For the church to live in eucharistic coherence, we must be willing to challenge Catholics persisting in grave sin.
- Father Louis Cameli: Priests should think twice before denying Communion to Catholics in same-sex unions.