Biden brings solid Catholic faith to presidency

WILMINGTON — Last Tuesday, President-elect Joe Biden — a longtime Delaware resident and the second Catholic to be elected to the White House — got on the phone with Pope Francis.

President-elect Joe Biden leaves a morning mass with his grandson Robert “Hunter” Biden last Sunday at Saint Joseph On The Brandywine Roman Catholic Church in Wilmington. Robert is the son of the late Beau Biden. Special to the Delaware State News/Butch Comegys

“The President-elect thanked His Holiness for extending blessings and congratulations and noted his appreciation for His Holiness’ leadership in promoting peace, reconciliation and the common bonds of humanity around the world,” according to a statement put out by the Biden transition team.

President-elect Biden “expressed his desire to work together on the basis of a shared belief in the dignity and equality of all humankind on issues such as caring for the marginalized and the poor, addressing the crisis of climate change, and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities,” the statement read.

Bishop Francis Malooly — who oversees the Diocese of Wilmington, which includes all of Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore — also released a statement about the election last Sunday.

“Today I congratulate President-elect Biden. We all must pray for the President-elect and President (Donald) Trump during this time of transition,” he said.

“No matter where we might fall on the political spectrum, we must seize this moment as an opportunity to begin to heal the crippling divisions in our great nation,” the bishop said. “These fractures were forged over decades and reconciliation will take time and patience.”

On the morning after Election Day, President-elect Biden attended church at St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine, a Catholic church in Greenville. He then visited the church’s nearby cemetery, where he visited the graves of his son Beau, daughter Naomi and first wife Neilia.

“Mr. Biden does attend mass there on occasion when he’s in the area,” said Robert Krebs, the director of the Diocese of Wilmington’s communications department.

St. Joseph is listed as one of three LBGTQ-friendly Catholic churches in Delaware on the website of New Ways Ministry, a group that advocates for equality for the LGBTQ community in the Catholic church.

This makes sense, as President-elect Biden’s 2012 endorsement of marriage equality predated even former President Barack Obama’s public acceptance of same-sex unions.

But that leaves the president-elect out of line with Catholic orthodoxy.

“Marriage is reserved for one male and one female,” Mr. Krebs said. “That’s always been the church’s stance and always will be.”

He also said the church does not support abortion. Many people voted for President-elect Biden in part because of his commitment to upholding Roe v. Wade, a Supreme Court case that protects a woman’s right to choose.

This inconsistency of sorts didn’t surprise Christine Heyrman, a University of Delaware history professor who studies American Christianity and grew up in the Catholic church.

“Catholicism is a big tent, and you would probably find within Catholicism a greater diversity of opinion on culture war issues than you would in the ranks of other denominations,” she said.

Mr. Krebs said that the same divisions the country at large faces are present in the American Catholic church.

“I think the Catholic community in the United States reflects the larger community,” he said. “It was a very divisive election… and I think that is true for people of all faith or people of no faith.”

Fifty percent of Catholic voters backed President Trump while 49% backed President-elect Biden, according to a survey of more than 110,000 voters nationwide conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago.

President-elect Biden is only the second Catholic to be voted into the White House. The first was Boston native John F. Kennedy in 1960.

At the time, many of President Kennedy’s contemporaries took issue with his Catholic faith, sowing xenophobic fears about his loyalty to the pope over the nation.

“I was 10 years old when John Kennedy was elected president, and his Catholicism was just a huge deal,” Professor Heyrman said. “But he was this extremely charismatic political figure and war hero.”

Traditionally, she said that American Catholics have had to make their loyalty to the nation extra clear.

“On the part of American Catholics, there has always been a particular concern to show that their first loyalty is to the country rather than the pope,” Professor Heyrman said.

“Going back to the first half of the 19th century, when you had for the first time a substantial Catholic presence in the United States, the knock against Catholics was that they can’t be true small-R republican citizens because they should have fealty to the pope.”

Professor Heyrman said that the Kennedy “family’s money went a long way toward compensating for his Catholicism. He was also the beneficiary of a liberalization of attitudes toward religious diversity generally with respect to Jews, with respect to Catholics.”

She added that changes to the nation’s demographic makeup have changed American social anxieties.

“One could argue that what has displaced religion as the main mode of contention in public life is race and in terms of office-holding, gender,” Professor Heyrman said.

She added that Catholicism itself has changed a lot too, especially since the Second Vatican Council in 1965, also known as Vatican II.

“With the Vatican II, Catholicism sort of protestantized,” she said.

“When I was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s as a good Catholic girl, people would sit at the mass with parishioners having no involvement except to go up for communion,” Professor Heyrman said. “Now, there is much more interaction between the congregation and clergy.”

She said the shift from Latin to vernacular masses and the move to have priests face the congregation rather than the altar has brought “American Catholicism, in terms of its ritual life, more in congruity with protestant forms of worship.”

But today, Professor Heyrman said Christianity and organized religion in general are losing their keystone roles in American identity and social life.

“Every study I have seen indicates that there are many more people now who are not attending church,” she said. “That’s not to say they’re fully secular people, but that they are not affiliated with any particular denomination.”

She said people simply don’t bring religion up as much anymore.

“Until very recently, I couldn’t have told you that Joe Biden was a Catholic,” Professor Heyrman said. “It’s that much in the background now.”

She said “Biden’s religiosity didn’t really come to the fore until the whole business with (Supreme Court Justice) Amy Coney Barrett,” a conservative who was recently appointed to the court.

In this debate, President-elect Biden brought up his lifelong Catholicism to deflect accusations that Democrats were treating Ms. Barrett unfairly in the confirmation process due to her religion.

“It’s a really interesting question why Catholicism isn’t the boogeyman that it was for decades,” Professor Heyrman said, “but clearly it’s not.”

But even today, many Catholics are eager to align their faith with a sense of patriotism, as Bishop Malooly did in his statement.

“As Christians, we are called to be people of hope,” he said. “We look to the future with hope that as one Nation under God, we will continue to be a beacon of freedom and prosperity to the world.”