Joe Biden is Catholic. This is, apparently, a controversial take these days.
Picking up on the political utility of the label—a much needed counterbalance to the radical and secular spirit that has overtaken the party at large—the Biden campaign has been hammering home “Joe’s Catholic roots” in a last-ditch effort to retain those voters who still attend Sunday services somewhere other than the Church of Woke. In response to this transparent politicking, some have pointed out that Biden spent a good chunk of the last century promoting such anti-Catholic policies as systematic infanticide, government-sanctioned sodomy, and high taxes. Biden, they say, cannot support these things and still be Catholic.
But he is. We have no authority to deny this. To disbelieve the Catholicity of someone who has been baptized and confirmed is to profess doubt over the sacraments’ ineluctable character. Joe Biden cannot choose not to be Catholic, and we cannot choose to stop calling him Catholic, whatever monstrous public sins he may undertake. The determination is above his ability, and ours, to alter. This is no mere semantic distinction: we do a great disservice to the power of the Church when we accept that politics can prevail over her sacraments.
Admittedly, the claims of the campaign go further (as the Democratic Party, I suspect, is none too concerned with the status bestowed by Catholic sacraments. They’re much too caught up in sacraments of their own). It’s not just that Joe Biden is Catholic; what matters is that Joe Biden’s politics are Catholic, at least in the telling of the DNC. A number of journals with Catholic names and progressive politics have been carrying water for the claim. A doting July 30 profile in the National Catholic Reporter sought to enlighten us on “How Joe Biden’s Catholic roots have shaped his public life.” Jesuit magazine America ran a nice little gloss of the DNC that alleged, “Joe Biden’s Catholic faith on display at Democratic convention’s final night.” The genre’s crowning jewel is “Joe Biden’s Catholic politics are complicated—but deeply American,” published in America on August 17th.
That last headline is offensive, moronic, and entirely correct.
Joe Biden is the perfect representative of the mainstream current of American Catholicism. He’s a squish who prioritizes the temporal and sentimental over the eternal and the sacred. Sooner or later, we’ll have to reckon with that fact.
Jack Jenkins, author of the America piece in question, cites approvingly Joe Biden’s own summation of his faith: “My idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion. It’s not so much the Bible, the beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, or the prayers I learned. It’s the culture.”
Now, the sensible thing to do here—not even the intelligent or insightful thing, but the basic, obvious, commonsense thing to do—is to stop and ask: what kind of Catholic culture exists independent of the Bible, the beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, and prayer? It can’t be a very healthy one, nor a very beautiful one, nor a very productive one. But it is, if we are being honest with ourselves, the one that exists in huge sections of the United States’ Catholic population.
The crisis of the Catholic Church in America is not that it has produced Joe Biden, but that it has produced ten million Joe Bidens. They sit on our parish councils. They teach in Catholic schools. They populate the pews on the weeks that it’s convenient. It is not Joe Biden’s personal failure that we ought to question; it is the social and institutional failures that have bred it.
Joe Biden’s relegation of Church teaching to a status inferior to his party’s platform is not really Joe Biden’s at all. He shares it with a remarkable number of his fellow American Catholics, as an EWTN/Pew poll reminded us in the spring. On the vital issue of abortion, for instance, a whopping 74 percent of self-identified Catholic respondents said that it should be legal in at least some cases, with a chilling 20 percent wishing to permit such evil in all cases. On most other issues, Catholics were split down party lines, suggesting that political and other temporal allegiances have come to outweigh American Catholics’ fidelity to Holy Mother Church. We can’t blame Joe Biden for that.
But we can blame that for Joe Biden. He is a typical product of the Catholic Church in our nation and our time. Those of us who have managed to hold on to more traditional practices and mores might not be inclined to admit that fact, in some blind and stubborn insistence that our fortunate lot is the status quo in the Church at large—at least the faithful part of it. But we must admit it, because the sooner we accept the problem, the sooner we can seek a solution.
We as a Church are failing to operate in the political world because we are failing in the formation of our own. Our faith has become a cultural vestige to tout on the campaign trail and at Christmas. Any attempt to reform that unfortunate state of affairs should begin with the center of a proper Catholic culture: “the Bible, the beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments,” and “the prayers.” These things have the power to transform us, and through us to transform the world. It does us no good to deny them, and it certainly does no good to deny our denial of them.
Joe Biden is Catholic—just as Catholic as the rest of us. What a terrifying thought.
[Photo credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images]