It has been a long time since American Catholics could expect to see the country’s president attending weekly mass, but it’s happening now. Every Sunday, President Biden goes to mass. He speaks openly about his faith. He paid tribute in his autobiography to the influence of nuns and priests as he was growing up in Delaware. He can be seen carrying a rosary. This is all heartening, and yet many Catholics, including some bishops, are reserved about the second Catholic president in the history of the US.
Their reservations were voiced by the president of the American bishops’ conference, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who expressed the hierarchy’s eagerness to work with the president but declared he held positions “in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage and gender” that “would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity”.
The ambivalence is, then, to do with the president’s position on these controversial moral and cultural issues of the moment. Abortion is the most obvious, but his position on gender and trans issues (about which he made significant policy changes in the first days of his presidency) are an indication that in America’s culture wars, he is to be found on one side, and not the orthodox Catholic one. These things matter; the question is whether they are sufficient to cancel out those respects in which Joe Biden is a good Catholic whose policies are congruent with – or motivated by – church teaching. Plainly Pope Francis regards the president sympathetically.
Perhaps it is no bad thing to have some distance between the church and the president. It is dangerous when a president can expect to be propped up by the bishops and downright unhealthy when the church is associated with one political party, as used to be the case with the Democrats. Certainly the Catholic hierarchy should engage in dialogue with the president in order to support those respects in which his administration is on the side of the angels and to take him to task for the ways in which his policies are at odds with church teaching or the common good.
There are a number of good things on the credit side already, and some unknowns. On the critical issue of nuclear weapons, we have yet to see where Joe Biden’s principles will take him. A reflexively hostile attitude to Russia is not an obvious route to disarmament.
Is the new president a man of peace? He is clear, following his predecessor, that China’s terrible treatment of the Uighur Muslims is genocidal. But he differs from Donald Trump in taking an assertive stance against the involvement of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the devastating war in Yemen; that has to be a good thing. We shall see how his administration works in practice to defend religious freedom, particularly that of Christians, and indeed Yazidis, in the Middle East. His declared stance against the death penalty is in keeping with principles set out by Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. He has, moreover, tried to curb the most unacceptable element of US gun laws, free access to assault weapons. On the debit side, there was his early move to lift the ban on giving US foreign aid to non-governmental groups that provide or actively promote abortion. What would be really disastrous would be any move to pack the Supreme Court, where conservatives (six out of nine are Catholic) are now in the majority, with nominees hostile to a pro-life ethos.
The new president comes to office at a time when Catholic leadership and its values are increasingly defining public debate and being promoted as a form of healing. Biden has a photo of Pope Francis in the Oval Office. This is encouraging even if Catholics and non-Catholics still disagree on which social values to prioritise. After he was sworn in, the Wall Street Journal ran an essay entitled: “Can Catholic Social Teaching Unite a Divided America?”
In his inaugural address, President Biden quoted St Augustine, who “wrote that the people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love”. We must hope that common objects of love in this presidency include justice for all, born and unborn, at home and abroad. Catholics should pray for him.