Joseph R. Biden Jr. is taking on more than the presidency of a beleaguered, polarized nation on Wednesday. The nation’s second Catholic president has to save his beleaguered, polarized American Catholic Church as well, says church historian Massimo Faggioli.
His new book, Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States (Bayard) releasing on Inauguration Day, describes Biden as a weekly-Mass-attending, hymn quoting, Vatican II-style believer who is “animated by values of solidarity, compassion and human dignity.” It also describes the political and social buzz saws in the path of his presidency.
A professor of theology and religious studies at in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University, Faggioli has written extensively on Vatican II and the papacy. His new book draws many parallels between challenges facing Biden and those facing Pope Francis, who frequently takes fire from conservative Catholic voices in the U.S.
PW talked with Faggioli about Biden, Francis and what the historian writes is “the age of anger all over the world.”
(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Your book describes America as a case study of the “convulsions” in the global church. Why is this moment, and Biden’s presidency, so significant?
Studying Joe Biden’s Catholicism is a way to study America. Until recent times, it was a matter of confessional identities, religious identities. It was clear what it meant to be a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Jew in public life. What happened in recent years is that ideology and politics have become decisive in shaping what kind of Catholic, Protestant, or Jew you were. And this is important for Biden because Catholicism is more incredibly divided in the United States than ever before and more divided here than anywhere else.
You ask yourself a question in the book: “Do churches, including the Catholic Church, still have the capacity to reconcile with pluralist democracy and to nurture American democracy?” What’s your answer? How does this all connect to the impact of the Vatican II reforms?
The work of the Second Vatican Council stood in the context that Catholicism must live in a multicultural, multi-religious world and that showed without question in all the documents it issued. And this idea is very much at the center of Pope Francis’ messages and encyclicals. But if you look at those who reject Vatican II, their arguments are rejecting that basic idea. They have even tried to unseat a legitimately elected pope. This is a period of what I call a ‘soft schism’ – one step before a civil war in the church and the rejection of the idea that Catholicism can co-exist with an America that is becoming less European, less white.
Your book traces the differing experiences of Al Smith (defeated in a presidential run plagued with rampant anti-Catholicism); John F. Kennedy (who assured Protestants his faith was a private one, not a hotline to the pope); John Kerry (confront by U.S. bishops who declared he was unfit to receive Communion because he was pro-choice), and Biden, whose election was greeted with dismay by the bishops in a re-launch of the ‘culture wars.’ Yet the strongest comparisons you make are between the experiences of Biden and Francis. Why?
They have much in common, not just generationally but because the opposition they face is very similar if not the same. It is the same ultra-conservative religious culture shaped entirely by the “culture wars.” They were elected mostly because they are very different from their predecessors in style and mission. And they both represent a globalist, multilateral, progressive humanism.
What do you mean when you say the presidency is a role that is “political but also moral and religious.”
G.K. Chesterton said America is ‘a nation with the soul of a church.’ It is much more than a state, it is a project with a role in the world and a U.S. president is like a pope or a constitutional king with a limited term and a religiosity that must be inclusive for all faiths. America is a religious idea and it is fitting and fascinating that a Catholic has been called to repair the moral damage that has been done to the presidency.
Who do you see as the audience for this book?
Someone said you should write something always too popular for academic and too academic for a popular audience. This is a book that comes out of academic experience but also tries to fill a gap in knowledge for most people who want to know more about Biden’s faith. I’m surprised this is the first book on this and I expect there will be more looks at Biden who is too liberal for some and too centrist for others.