Is Joe Biden a good Catholic?

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Is Joe Biden a good Catholic?

Catholicism is set to become even more influential globally over the next four years, as a Catholic assumes the position of the most powerful man in the world. Our analyst Frazer MacDiarmid explores: how good a representative of the Catholic Church is US President Joe Biden?

This article was written by Frazer MacDiarmid and reflects his personal analyses and opinions, rather than those of EARS.

Even before Biden was elected, Catholicism played an enormous role in the 2020 US election, which EARS has previously explored in an excellent article. Now, Biden’s Catholic faith looks set to dominate at least the next four years of US politics. It will be subject to intense scrutiny, as analysts interpret his decisions as stemming from his Catholic beliefs, or in contradiction to them. But at the very beginning of his presidency, what can we say about whether Joe Biden might be a good Catholic or a bad one?

I begin by accepting the Christian principle that no one is able to judge anyone else’s heart.[1] However, what I want to do is look at how Biden’s words and actions correspond to Catholic principles and teachings, and how he has been interpreted by other Catholics.

Abortion: the crucial issue
Perhaps the most obvious issue on which Biden seems to be at odds with the Catholic Church is abortion. Traditional Catholics have always been vocal in their opposition to the moral evil of abortion.[2] Biden’s own stance on this has changed throughout his career, but he has recently assumed the Democratic Party’s position, arguing for the right of all women, regardless of financial status, to choose to have an abortion.[3] [4]

Biden’s justification for his position is interesting. He says that while he is prepared to accept his Church’s teaching that life begins at conception, and that he is therefore personally opposed to abortion, he is “not prepared to impose that on every other person.”[5]

While this would seem to uphold America’s famous division between church and state (which Donald Trump has been happily corroding[6] [7]), Biden has been criticised by some for hypocrisy.[8] How can one believe something to be an inherent evil, while voting to make it accessible to millions?

Indeed, Biden was recently denied the Eucharist in a South Carolina Catholic Church. The priest said that his advocacy of abortion placed him “outside of Church teaching.”[9] However, the newly-appointed Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, has confirmed that he will continue to offer Biden the Eucharist.[10] The question of whether abortion-supporting politicians should be sanctioned by the Church is much bigger than Biden.[11]

Indeed, over half of all US Catholics (56%) believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.[12] The Catholic Church is plagued with division and infighting over the issue of abortion, which Biden only brings into the spotlight.

Biden has also faced at least one allegation of sexual assault, and several of physical impropriety, which he denies.[13] [14] Faced with these, Biden was put in the awkward position of needing to dial down his previously strong message that women survivors must be believed.[15]

The pope’s presidential favourite
Pope Francis appeared tacitly to give his support to Biden, or at least strongly oppose the leadership style of Trump, in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, published just a month before the US election. Its criticism of failures in COVID-19 management, over-reliance on the free market to solve social and humanitarian problems, and countries’ growing reluctance to accept refugees, all seemed to criticise Trump’s presidency.[16] Biden himself certainly interpreted it this way. A week before the election he drew from Francis’ words in Fratelli Tutti to call out the “phony populism that appeals to the ‘basest and most selfish’ instincts.”[17] That the pope so eagerly called to congratulate Joe Biden on winning the presidency is being criticised by some as a compromise to Catholic integrity.[18] [19]

Social justice: Biden’s Catholic trump card?
Biden’s drive for social justice has been praised by Catholic leaders, even those who criticise his abortion stance.[20] Trump’s presidency has been focused on restricting immigration, perpetrating horrific human rights abuses in the process.[21] Biden’s team has made it a priority that these abuses will stop under Biden, and the US will resume taking their fair share of refugees.[22] His image as welcoming towards the immigrant and stranger (Matthew 25:31-40) is perhaps Biden’s strongest feature as a Catholic.[23]

On the international stage, Biden is expected to rebuild America’s concern for human rights. A major step would be reversing Trump’s decision to leave the Human Rights Council, as well as rejoining various arms restriction programmes. Biden is also expected to crack down on countries which have poor regards for human rights, including Saudi Arabia and Russia, and concerning himself more with international abuses in Syria.[24] His respect for human dignity, at home and abroad, is clearly in line with Catholic principles.

Biden is certainly trying to cast himself as a hero of equality. He will dismantle the barriers stopping Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ, women, and other marginalised groups from enjoying the same opportunities as straight white males. His track record, however, is less clear-cut. In 1994, Senator Joe Biden supported a crime bill which resulted in the mass incarceration of (overwhelmingly) Black Americans. His critics are now pointing out that Biden contributed to the system of oppression that Black Lives Matter activists have been protesting. He now says that his support for the bill was a ‘mistake’, and pledges to do more for the Black community.[25]

Climate change and environment
US Catholics cannot seem to decide whether environmental degradation and climate change is a problem they care about.[26] Trump could have done little more to destroy the environment in his four years in office,[27] and Biden has (predictably) pledged to do better. Where he might appeal to Catholic sensibilities more, however, is his argument that environmental destruction affects low-income and marginalised communities the most – his stance on climate change thus transforms into one of social justice.[28]

Conclusion: Catholic identity under scrutiny
Abortion is important for Catholics, but is vastly over-simplified by some. Abortion may be ‘murder’, but the debate touches other important human rights issues as well: women’s rights, freedom over one’s own body, as well as social/racial equality – subjects the Catholic Church has been called out for degrading.[29] [30] Arguably, the Catholic Church should pay more attention to injustices that cripple those already born. The enormous multinational companies destroying the planet and perpetuating cycles of inequity seem a more worthy target for the Church’s moral crusades than pregnant women – which Pope Francis has been notable for perceiving. Jesus said nothing about abortion,[31] but quite a lot about the evils of empire and wealth.[32]

On all other points considered above, Biden’s intended paths align more or less with Catholic principles. His presidency should see restored rights for immigrants, women, and the otherwise marginalised, as well as concern for the environment. In other words, it will rely upon respect rather than fear to power America.

The difficulty with determining Biden’s consistency with Catholicism is due to contrasting visions for a ‘godly’ world within the Church. Conservatives tend to get stuck on Biden’s stance on abortion, overlooking all the other ways in which he embodies gospel principles. More liberal voices instead focus on the inherent Christian morality behind so many of his other policies. Biden will polarise the American Catholic Church even further in the coming years, but perhaps this will prove to be for the Church’s greater good. It is only in extremis that one’s true beliefs are shown, and leading the most powerful country in the world in 2021 is sure to test Biden’s mettle.

Biden’s presidency will help to clarify whether Catholics support him in restoring the conscience of America, or condemn him for his defence of women’s rights.

This article was written by Frazer MacDiarmid and reflects his personal analyses and opinions, rather than those of EARS.

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[1] The Vatican document Gaudium et Spes 28 states that ‘God alone is the judge and searcher of hearts, for that reason He forbids us to make judgments about the internal guilt of anyone.’

[2] Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching

[3] Joe Biden’s long evolution on abortion rights still holds surprises

[4] Abortion: How do Trump and Biden’s policies compare?

[5] Biden’s abortion shift tests the politics of his faith

[6] The Separation of Church and State Is Breaking Down Under Trump

[7] The Quiet Demise of the Separation of Church and State

[8] No confusion: Trump’s only pro-life candidate

[9] Catholic priest says he denied Joe Biden Holy Communion at Mass in South Carolina because of abortion views

[10] Analysis: Archbishop Gregory says he won’t deny Biden communion. How will Catholics respond?

[11] Should Catholic bishops deny Communion to pro-choice politicians?

[12] 8 key findings about Catholics and abortion

[13] Joe Biden assault claim: What does ‘believe women’ mean now?

[14] The controversy over Joe Biden’s treatment of women, explained

[15] Joe Biden assault claim: What does ‘believe women’ mean now?

[16] How Pope Francis’s encyclical could shake up the US election

[17] Joe Biden quotes Pope Francis’ new encyclical to warn against ‘phony populism’

[18] Catholics divided as bishops examine Biden’s abortion stance

[19] Vatican calling: Pope congratulates Joe Biden on election

[20] US bishops’ leader: Biden stance on abortion ‘difficult’

[21] UN rights chief ‘appalled’ by conditions in US for migrants

[22] The Biden Plan for Securing our Values as a Nation of Immigrants

[23] The Bible says to welcome refugees

[24] ‘Like Obama’: What Biden’s presidency could mean for human rights

[25] Things have changed’: can Biden overcome the racist legacy of the crime bill he backed?

[26] Catholics Divided Over Global Warming

[27] The Trump Administration Is Reversing More Than 100 Environmental Rules. Here’s the Full List.

[28] The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice

[29] Pope Francis put a woman in a top Vatican role. It shows how little power Catholic women hold.

[30] Catholic Church ‘an empire of misogyny’ – Mary McAleese

[31] 6 Myths About Abortion

[32] Jesus shows us there is a special way of overcoming evil and violence