The public voice of the Catholic Church in the United States spoke directly to President Biden on the day of his inauguration in January by way of a message from the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles.
Biden is just the second Catholic president in the nation’s history, and Gomez’s message highlighted values and commitments shared by both the bishops and the Biden administration, for example, on immigration policy and climate questions. The message also clearly laid out areas of serious disagreement, particularly on abortion and other life issues.
In a sense, there was nothing surprising in the Archbishop’s message. What was surprising was that never before had the USCCB issued a statement on the day of a new president’s inauguration, and never in such forceful terms. In some Catholic quarters, the message underscored Joe Biden’s seeming disregard for Church teachings on the sacredness of all human life because of his support for abortion rights. That connection turned his Catholicism into a highly charged issue, and the rhetoric quickly ramped up with calls to deny President Biden access to Holy Communion.
Recently, several bishops have issued letters and statements echoing Archbishop Gomez and underscoring, both directly and indirectly, their support for denying President Biden access to Holy Communion. In effect, a segment of the Church in the United States sees his relationship to the Catholic faith essentially defined by his political positions on abortion rights. The narrative took a new turn on May 10, 2021 when it was revealed that Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote a letter to Archbishop Gomez and very precisely cautioned him and the bishops against taking this stance.
Cardinal Ladaria’s letter would seem to put to rest the hot-button issue of whether Joe Biden should receive communion, or not. Such a matter is, as the Cardinal and the Catholic moral tradition make clear, an issue between Biden and his bishop and pastor — as it is for any Catholic.
But ending that controversy does not mean the end of the discussion about the relevance of Biden’s Catholic faith. In fact, I would argue that there is a real challenge of faith for President Biden, but that it is situated in a larger context. This needs some explanation.
For most Americans, religion matters. And, in a way that many outside the United States find difficult to understand, the religion and religiosity of elected public officials matter as well. This even applies to those public officials who disavow personal religiosity and embrace a purely secular position, because they have their own kind of a religious brand. But how exactly does religion matter and make a difference?
Every person, who is informed by a particular faith or a philosophy of life, holds life-directing values and a concept of the good life that we might strive to attain. Public officials draw or ought to draw from their values and their vision of the good life to shape their service. And this is certainly true for whoever holds the office of president of the United States.
As he exercises both his executive and leadership functions, President Biden, just as every other president, can expect to be lobbied and pulled by different interest groups. They will want him to implement policies that promote the good of the nation as they see it. President Biden will hear from a wide range of these voices. They may include his fellow Democrats, business and commercial interests, organized labor, and other groups organized around race, ethnicity, and culture. Religious organizations can constitute interest groups that seek to promote the national good. The Catholic Church in the United States, for example, has a public presence through the USCCB. Its mission is to support the ministry of bishops. By its own self-description, the USCCB calls the conference “to act collaboratively and consistently on vital issues confronting the Church and society.”
There is a real value in examining questions around Joe Biden’s Catholicism and his exercise of office as president of the United States. As a nation that has extolled “the separation of church and state,” America has a history of ambivalence, if not downright suspicion, about Catholic politicians taking cues from the Church in shaping and executing public policy. Still, the Church in the United States does not and will not fall silent. The Church stands firmly committed to engage civil society and make a contribution.
The question is: should President Biden’s Catholicism shape his presidency, and if so how could it?
Some Catholics hold that because he adheres to the Democratic Party platform of supporting largely unrestricted access to abortion, the answer is already in. He has reneged his faith, placed himself in what Canon Law terms “manifest grave sin,” and should therefore be denied Holy Communion. Case closed.
In fact, the case is not closed. There is some complexity here that deserves our reflection.
As noted earlier, every president exercises two principal functions: he or she is an executive and a leader.
The president’s executive function encompasses the implementation of laws, the development of policies, and the management of both domestic and foreign affairs. Within that executive function, the president can exercise some shaping power on the law through his veto, his appointment of judges, and his interpretation of the law by passing regulations that implement it. This is not, however, unlimited power. The president does not make laws, and he is not the ultimate arbiter of their interpretation. Those functions ultimately rest in the legislative and judicial branches of government. Even presidents who have identified themselves as pro-life have not been able and are not able to overturn abortion laws. In light of this, a sweeping condemnation of President Biden by angry and vocal (and often Catholic) segments of the pro-life movement seems unjustified. Still, there is more to the story.
In addition to exercising an executive function, every president also ought to provide a threefold form of leadership: communicating a vision of the nation to its people, calling citizens to take responsibility for their life together, and offering hope and encouragement as the nation faces its inevitable challenges. In exercising leadership on the question of abortion, former President Bill Clinton, for example, spoke to the nation and famously voiced his hope that it would be “safe, legal, and rare.” To the disappointment of many Catholics and other pro-life people, President Biden has not yet offered incisive words about the sacredness of all life from conception to natural death, even in a time plagued with mass shootings, a deadly pandemic, and several natural disasters.
President Biden’s stance on abortion is understandably important to Catholics and very distressing for many of them. Still, it needs to be evaluated within a wider framework that calls for the loving protection of all human life, especially the most vulnerable. Underlining the teaching of Pope Francis, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago has recognized that we need a consistent ethic of solidarity. We also need the consistent ethic of life that was first articulated by Cupich’s predecessor in Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. That framework was later adopted and adapted by Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium vitae.
The foundation for this wider framework rests on Catholic social teaching. Here, it seems, is the real challenge of President Biden’s Catholicism. In and from Catholic social teaching, President Biden could offer the nation a kind of leadership that is not a doctrinal imposition on a pluralistic nation but rather a deeply human and shared vision of how we can live together. That teaching could recalibrate the question of abortion and encompass many wide-ranging national concerns.
Catholic Social Teaching: The Common Good
A sense of the common good establishes the foundation of Catholic social teaching. The Second Vatican Council describes the common good in this way: “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” (Gaudium et spes, 26) The common good is the sum and substance of what brings us together, keeps us going, and leads us into our future. Because it is common and shared, the common good breaks the deadening grip of the individual self as sovereign and enables us to draw together, close to each other. In that sense of life together, we can begin to see another foundational element of Catholic social teaching—solidarity.
Pope Francis has recently re-framed solidarity in his encyclical Fratelli tutti as a sense of fraternity and social friendship. This enables us to transcend an atomistic individualism that can wreck our connections with each other. At the root of our life together, we need to discover each other as brothers and sisters beyond blood kinship, beyond race, beyond gender—in fact, beyond all these and other often pre-set and distancing boundaries. Pope Francis’s summons to universal fraternity and solidarity is not an unrealistic pious aspiration. Solidarity often lies just below the surface of life ready to emerge in the right circumstances. Our connections with each other and our need for each other manifested themselves most recently in our experience of the pandemic.
Identity and Subsidiarity
A third and related foundational element of Catholic social teaching has to do with identity. In our time and in the United States, there is an acute awareness of identity politics, a hyper-differentiation of people by categories that can trigger a destructive tribalism. Catholic social teaching, especially in its emphasis on subsidiarity or the localization of politics, respects and fosters the unique identities and traditions of people. At the same time, Catholic social teaching also points us to a common or shared identity rooted in our origins and in our purpose in this world.
Finally, at its core and foundation, Catholic social teaching envisions people called to love each other. We are unaccustomed to connecting love with the social and political order. In Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis does so and speaks eloquently of the place of love in social and political life. That love means nothing, unless it is willing to transcend self-interest. In dramatic moments, love may mean a willingness to sacrifice oneself for others. Ordinarily, it means a day-to-day willingness to give of oneself to others and for others.
The Larger Vision
These foundational elements of Catholic social teaching find their practical implementation in fostering respect for the dignity and worth of human persons beginning with their very lives but also including their gifts and dreams, in working for justice and peace, and in securing the rightful freedom of people to live their lives well.
That brings us back to Joe Biden, president of the United States and Catholic citizen. He brings to the office of the presidency his personal gifts and experiences. As a believer, he brings a tradition that can inform his leadership of the nation, not in a sectarian way but by offering a vision to the nation, calling citizens to responsibility, and fostering hope and encouragement. His Catholic ethos prepares him to lead by encouraging citizens to break the grip of a potentially crippling absorption with the individual self, something that taxes and weakens the social fabric of the nation.
His Catholic ethos can and ought to help him point to directions in finding the common good, our connections with each other, our shared identity, and our willingness to live loving and self-giving lives. Eventually, this leads to paths of justice, peace, reconciliation, respect for all human life especially the most vulnerable, and promoting opportunity for all citizens, especially those on the margins of society.
At the beginning, we noted that the common take on President Biden and Catholicism has everything to do with the question of abortion rights.
Does abortion belong in the description we have laid out of Catholic social teaching? Yes, of course. But it can only be addressed—especially from a Catholic perspective—in a larger framework of concerns and foundations. President Biden’s Catholicism cannot and ought not to tell him how to run the country. His Catholicism, however, can be a key to a kind of leadership our nation desperately needs in this moment. Already, his calls for unity and decency and fairness already bear the marks of a passion for the common good, a sense of solidarity, and a willingness to transcend our differences and embrace each other in solidarity as fratelli tutti, brothers and sisters to each other.
And, yes, there is hope that President Biden can lead by calling us to respect and honor all life—life yet to be born, life trapped in poverty and injustice, life made vulnerable by illness, and life moving to its end in this world.