President Biden and Catholicism in the United States

MISSION AND MINISTRY | For the second time in 230 years, a practicing Roman Catholic is president of the United States. What is the relationship between religion and politics at this moment in the U.S.? Why is that important? How does President Biden fit in to this landscape?

To celebrate LMU’s mission, Professor Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University, the author of the recently published Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States (Bayard, 2021), will discuss his book with Carol Costello, journalist and lecturer in LMU’s journalism program. Mission and Ministry will host the Zoom webinar on faith, politics, and the media on Tuesday, April 20, from 4-5:30 p.m. PDT (7 EDT).

“I had fun writing this [book] because Biden understands a lot of what had happened in the U.S. before and what’s happening now,” said Faggioli. “It is a complicated situation; there’s no easy solution and there’s no there’s no easy reconciliation.”

Unlike the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, who downplayed his Catholic identity, Biden made his Catholicism a central part of his campaign, often attending Mass, referencing his faith, and quoting Pope Francis. “Joe Biden is so comfortable wearing his religion,” said Costello. “He talks about it in such a comfortable way and non-threatening way, in a non-judgmental way. It is easier for people to accept what he says as a religious person — at least for me.”

Biden has also publicly leaned heavily on his faith to help him overcome his personal tragedies, such as the death of his son Beau. “He has been incredibly effective in presenting his Catholicism as a way to unite people,” Faggioli noted. “That is very interesting, because Catholicism, in itself, has become polarizing no matter what the issue is.”

Costello said while there is always division and opposition, she has hope in the future of the Catholic Church. “It is just reflecting on what is happening in our global world and is morphing into something different and leading the way. There is still a great number of Catholics in America and in the world who have influence over the decisions that are made.”

Faggioli said that on life issues and LGBTQ+ issues, Biden has maintained the Democratic Party line: pro-choice and openly accepting of one’s sexual orientation. But, in all other areas, Biden has focused on the common good, a central concept in Catholic social teaching. Faggioli said that Biden wants a rebuilt America to be more inclusive and less unequal. Because Biden is privileged – a white, male senior politician – it gives him a strong platform to move forward in progressive policies.

“Biden is talking raising taxes for the rich, which has been a taboo topic for 30 or 40 years, and so this would be a very Catholic thing to do,” said Faggioli. He also believes Pope Francis has also made these principles more acceptable in the last few years. “Catholicism has moved in that direction … Right now, for Pope Francis, it is about social equality, access to health care, economic and racial justice.” In “Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States,” Faggioli notes the parallels between Pope Francis and President Biden:

“Both [Pope] Francis and Biden have the arduous task of exercising institutional leadership through a period of upheaval at all levels: environmental, economic, social, cultural, and political. Their elections are both encouraging signs of the vitality of the institutional systems they lead. But it is not clear how much the institutional level can do to deal with the breaking of the balance at all other levels.”

Ultimately, Costello observed, many Catholics who rejected Pope Francis are now rejecting President Biden. “We are seeing in Joe Biden the same problems that Pope Francis faces within the Catholic Church,” she said. “The pope is fighting with the very conservative arm of the Catholic Church; Joe Biden is fighting the very conservative people in our political spectrum.”

Faggioli has a similar view. “We can expect that these Catholics who don’t think much of the president will keep thinking that, until he leaves the White House,” said Faggioli. “I mean, there’s no hope from that point of view. The Catholic Church is going to be divided for a long time.”

Costello said the LMU community should join in this significant conversation. “Catholics rule the roost in America right now,” she said. “All different kinds of Catholics: the Supreme Court is majority Catholic; the far right in America, Steve Bannon, is Catholic; the far left in America, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is Catholic; the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is Catholic; and the president of the United States is Catholic. It is important to understand how religion plays into Catholic politics, because those are the people making the most important decisions in our country going forward.”

The LMU community is invited to join this Mission Spotlight and engaging conversation with Faggioli and Costello. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required via Zoom. Click here to learn more about the event and RSVP now.