If elected, Joe Biden will be the second Catholic president in U.S. history. He is already following the formula of the first, who expressly rejected any claim of authority that Church teaching had on his moral and political life. John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association is the roadmap to Biden’s campaign and accommodationist faith.
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” declared Kennedy, “where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act.” Kennedy stated that he was not “the Catholic candidate for president,” but rather “the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who also happens to be a Catholic.” Thus, he said, “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.” Accordingly, his policy positions—“on birth control, divorce, . . . or any other subject”—were dictated by Democratic party politics, not by Church teaching. Regardless of whether one supports or opposes Biden’s policy positions, Kennedy’s explicit articulation of these convictions is the implicit modus vivendi of Biden’s political life.
“Joe Biden is a devout catholic [sic] and regularly attends Sunday service [sic],” The Lincoln Project tweeted in August. “Biden, who carries a rosary in his pocket and attends Mass every Sunday, is known as . . . deeply devout,” NPR added, gushing that his campaign is “perhaps the most overtly devout . . . since Jimmy Carter in 1976.” The ecclesiological clunkiness of the tweet and NPR’s breathless encomium exemplify how Biden’s faith is embraced by his religiously tone-deaf supporters.
But, of course, the secular press celebrates Biden’s “devout” faith precisely because it rejects much of the core moral teaching of the Catholic Church. Biden’s most absolute policy positions contradict non-negotiable Catholic doctrine, which seems to be irrelevant to his political life. And even his positions that might coincidentally merge with aspects of the Church’s prudential teaching are informed by the Democratic party platform, rather than by the gospel.
Despite Biden’s “devout” Catholicism, for example, he is an enthusiastic proponent of abortion on demand. He has articulated his support for expansive laws to protect abortion, including to “pass legislation making Roe the law of the land,” to repeal the Hyde Amendment, and to implement regulations guaranteeing federal funding of Planned Parenthood. This will pave the way for federal funding of abortion, because, he explained in April, “abortion is an essential health care service.”
Biden’s vigorous support of same-sex marriage, as another example, makes him “the most pro-equality president we have ever had,” according to an activist. Thus, passing the so-called “Equality Act,” which would eviscerate the civil rights of girls and women and broadly undermine the religious liberty of Catholic health care workers and institutions, “would be his top legislative priority.” And Biden has officiated at a same-sex “marriage,” which is not simply opposed to Catholic moral theology, but impossible according to Catholic teaching.
“The question is sometimes raised, whether Catholicism is compatible with American democracy,” observed John Courtney Murray, S.J., in his 1960 book, We Hold These Truths. “The question is invalid as well as impertinent; for the manner of its position inverts the order of values. It must, of course, be turned round to read, whether American democracy is compatible with Catholicism.” Murray’s “turned round” formulation might be read as a repudiation of Biden’s and Kennedy’s subordination of Catholic moral teaching to secular partisan politics. Indeed, it strikingly contradicts Kennedy’s assertion that his partisan loyalty supersedes his Catholic faith.
The “agreement and consensus” required for political participation in a pluralist society is “no small political problem,” Fr. Murray demurred. “[H]ow is it that this common assent and consent do not infringe upon . . . the freedom of consciences to retain the full integrity of their own convictions?” While the answer is not an easy one, for a Catholic politician to “resign this freedom or to abdicate this right would be at once the betrayal of religion and the corruption of politics.” And whatever the answer may be, counsels Murray, the “Catholic may not, as others do, merge his religious and his patriotic faith, or submerge one in the other.”
Joe Biden is a Catholic. His baptism can no more be renounced or rescinded than the sun can be commanded not to rise. Thus, he is my brother in the faith. And neither I nor anyone else has the authority to make a judgment about his personal devotion. But much of his public life, as expressed through his policy positions, expressly contradicts that faith, and cannot be reconciled with it. Like Kennedy before him, against Fr. Murray’s counsel, Biden has submerged his religious faith in his partisan loyalty, betraying his religion and corrupting politics.
Kenneth Craycraft is a licensed attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology.
Photo by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons. Image cropped.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.