Last week witnessed both the inauguration of the second Catholic president of the United States and the sorry spectacle of clashing Catholic responses to that momentous event. On the one hand, Pope Francis' message to the new president highlighted the hoped-for coherence between Biden's political priorities and those broadly associated with the Church's traditional teaching about political principles rooted in social solidarity. However, the Pope's warm words clearly contrasted with the somewhat cold and confrontational tone of the statement issued by the President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Massimo Faggioli's new book about President Biden, his faith, and the Church in the U.S., Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, seeks to address this apparent conflict and its significance.
Italian-born, Faggioli has been writing and teaching in the United States for over a decade. He is currently on the faculty at Villanova University and is a regular commentator on the American religious and political scene. With the benefit of his more globally sensitive perspective on the American scene, he considers what he calls "the Catholic question in the United States: What does it mean to be both Catholic and American? Throughout American history, in ways not faced by members of other Christian churches, Catholics have had to engage in a certain kind of negotiation and mediation with their own Church, both on the national level and in terms of their relationship with the Vatican."
Faggioli sets his study of the second Catholic president against the background of the history of the Catholic Church in America and the fate of previous Catholic presidential candidates. For the first Catholic U.S. President, John F. Kennedy, "his being Catholic was a problem for important sectors of the Protestant establishment of the nation; for the second one, the country has no problem with his being Catholic, but a not insignificant segment of the American Church—from among its bishops, its clergy, and its faithful—has a problem with his Catholicism."
In short, "Biden’s election represents a vindication of the history of American Catholicism as a history of the search for a compatibility between the Church and a pluralist constitutional democracy." Since Kennedy's time, however, significant segments of the American Church, in varying degrees opposed to both President Biden and Pope Francis, have dramatically changed in a way that has renewed that old alleged incompatibility between Catholicism and pluralist constitutional democracy.
Faggioli recalls how Kennedy "adopted a separationist vision that departed from Catholic theology of the time on the relationship between church and state and prefigured the contribution of American Catholicism to modern Catholic doctrine on religious freedom." In contrast, since then, "American neoconservativism has mounted a polemic against the Kennedy presidency, accusing him of having secularized the presidency and even Catholicism itself," while, on the other hand, Biden has an "easygoing way of carrying his faith in public." The latter reflects both Biden's personality and personal life-story, but also "a credible Catholicism because it is more lived than proclaimed." The former reflects the changes in both religious and political life during and after the Reagan era and a certain "evangelicalization of American Catholicism" and "Catholic conservatism’s rejection of Pope Francis."
That conflict between Pope Francis and a revived contemporary, neo-integralism in American Catholicism is central to Faggioli's analysis, which highlights "the overlap that exists between support for Trump among practicing Christian voters (including many Catholics) and the attempt by influential sectors of the American Catholic Church to delegitimize Pope Francis both ecclesially and politically." Hence, the "obvious unease over the election of Biden—who embodies an understanding of faith in the public square that is far removed from that of the "culture wars'."
The great strength of Faggioli's analysis is its global perspective, which puts the distinctive dimensions of the American Catholic experience in a wider, world-wide perspective. That world-wide context is evident in the overlap, for example, between integralist opposition to President Biden's presidency and someone like pro-Trump Archbishop Viganò's so far unsuccessful "coup attempt" against Francis' papacy.
Faggioli's more global orientation highlights the inevitably different perspectives and interests that have been and will continue to be the case between the Holy See and the United States, and "obvious differences between Francis and Biden" in those areas, but also and very interestingly the "uncertainties" of previous American presidents, from Kennedy to Obama, "about foreign policy in areas where religion played a key role." Most importantly - and a challenge for all factions in American society - Pope Francis "has gone further, offering an indictment (never explicit, but clear nonetheless) of the globalized 'American way of life'.”
That said, the new president seems close to being on the same page with Pope Francis, insofar as the Pope "has sought to encourage a truce between ideological factions within the Church, especially on issues of life and sexual morality, which are central to the self-understanding of Catholicism in the United States. Francis is an anti-ideological Catholic who has made no secret of wanting to call off the “culture wars.” Ultimately, it comes down to conflicting and perhaps irreconcilable "understandings of the role of religion in society."
More basically, Faggioli sees in both Biden and Pope Francis, "the refusal to give up a theology grounded in an optimistic evaluation of creation, a stance that emphasizes incarnation and sacramentality. History is a locus for grace, and grace occurs in the struggle."
The peculiar paradox of the present moment in the relationship between Catholicism and American society starts with the fact that "Biden is the first Catholic president to publicly express a religious soul—not a vaguely Christian one, but a distinctly Catholic one, confidently but not bellicosely." He "represents old Catholicism—the era of the American Catholic Church that was shaped by its schools and the religious orders that ran them with solidly trained staff (mostly women) and at almost zero cost, and a history of Catholic immigration from high-density Europe." but his ascent to presidential power parallels a dramatic decline in the Church's institutional presence and power. For Faggioli, "the temptation to treat the president as a Catholic to be disciplined" has "failed to hide the weakness of institutional Catholicism in the United States."
It is often noted how politics has become the prime definer of identity. I have even heard it claimed that people increasingly choose their religious denomination (or perhaps their parish?) primarily on the basis of politics. For Faggioli, such polarization is at the heart of the Church's present condition in the U.S., in which "the two Catholic ecclesial parties have adopted the platforms of the two political parties, bending theological orthodoxy to fit ideological orthodoxy." The Church in the U.S. has become "a Church that is now addicted to its own extreme polarization." It is not unreasonable to surmise that, to the extent that the Church has been less effective in its outreach to the wider world in recent decades, this has, at least in some measure, been because so much Catholic energy has been sapped by internal divisions about the Church's terms of engagement with the world.
As the most prominent Catholic in the United States for the next for years - and perhaps for the present the second most prominent Catholic on the world stage - President Biden would seem to be uniquely positioned to help refashion the Church's public face - a non-integralist public face focused less on the acquisition of political power and more on the challenge of being a leaven of grace in a pluralistic, constitutional, and democratic society.
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