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Biden, Buttigieg and the challenge for today’s Church

Both Biden and Buttigieg were baptised Catholics, but their paths have diverged (Getty)

Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic presidential candidate and flavour of the month, offers America “generational leadership” – and I’m finally old enough to understand what that means. I’m 36, he’s 37 and he’s one of the first politicians I can identify my own life with, including the fact that he got into God at university. Me at Cambridge; Pete as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. But while I gravitated towards Catholicism, he wound up an Episcopalian, despite being the son of a Maltese immigrant, baptised Catholic, a pupil at a Catholic high school and scion of a famously Catholic town, South Bend.

The contrast with Joe Biden is fascinating. Joe embodies the Vatican II generation of Catholic Democrat. Born into a mostly Irish family in the northeast; evolved leftwards on gay rights and abortion; probably a bit embarrassed by parts of the Catechism; but has stuck with the faith nevertheless because he is devout and the Church is family. Biden admires Pope Francis and you can guess why. Both men represent the Sixties’ emphasis upon the social gospel, moving towards something more explicitly egalitarian that speaks to an audience beyond the Church.

But what are the fruits for the Church itself? Well, turnout on a Sunday isn’t strong and politicians like Joe Biden publicly contradict Catholic teaching with near-impunity – and then there’s the bleeding away of the future generation. Let’s face it: not only should Pete Buttigieg be a Catholic for his own benefit but we also need men of his qualities. Aside from being well-educated and articulate, he did a tour with the military and put his life on the line of his country; things that cannot be said for Donald Trump.

He’s also gay. And married. How his sexuality might have shaped his attitude towards Catholicism is unclear, but liberals like Mr Biden would probably argue that so long as the Church sticks to its ancient moral teachings, the more it’ll alienate people of ability like Mr Buttigieg. Change or die! But it’s obvious, 50-odd years after Vatican II, that these beliefs are not up for negotiation (just ask Pope Francis, who remains utterly orthodox) so the bigger, more compelling challenge is how the Church speaks to a generation raised in the cultural landscape shaped by liberals like Mr Biden. How do we address people who ought to be with us but now regard the private lives they have built for themselves in this liberal social order as non-negotiable?

I’m not sure I have an answer, but what’s obvious is that the Vatican II generation’s downplaying of social conservatism and stress upon socialism hasn’t made the slightest bit of difference. On the contrary, growth seems to be where there is witness, authority and beauty. I note that Mayor Pete said in an interview “if there’s going to be music, I want an organ, not a guitar” – so he sounds pretty ripe for conversion to me.

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I was incredibly saddened by the tragedies in Paris and Sri Lanka – and then maddened by some of the responses to them. A few said Notre Dame is a symbol of Christian oppression so let’s not mourn it. One numpty said “don’t send your prayers” following the Sri Lankan killings because he claims he saw Christian missionaries converting Buddhist orphans for food and shelter after the Indian Ocean tsunami. I won’t name names because that’s precisely what they want.

You’ve heard all about “fake news”? Well, I call this phenomenon “fake views”. Some people get off on (or are even paid for) having controversial opinions, and will peddle any old nonsense to get five minutes of fame. Maybe they believe this rubbish, maybe they don’t – it really doesn’t matter because the key thing to remember is that almost no one else thinks this way. But the media (as with fake news) picks up the fake view because they think it’ll get audiences and clicks, and thus they turn a nothing-burger into a major story by the magic of over-exposure. The major outlet for this in the UK is Good Morning Britain with Piers Morgan, which regularly features people debating opinions held by a minority of one, such as a member of the Scottish parliament who said Churchill was a “white supremacist … mass murderer”. The show’s list of hot topics is heartbreaking in its inanity: is Fireman Sam sexist? Should cyclists have number plates? Should bird feeders be banned?

If these subjects come up when I’m on a TV panel, I’ll sometimes say: “I don’t know” or “I don’t care”. It’s a revolutionary response that generates a mix of laughter and panic in the studio, but my fellow pundits need to start taking a stand. You don’t have to answer silly questions; you don’t have to turn a fake view into a talking point. Given the enormity of the problems facing our poor old planet, I think we owe it to the public to elevate the conversation.

Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor