Vice presidents aren’t usually figures of great political consequence. When he ran for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Joe Biden never broke five per cent. And yet, by the time he finished his term as President Barack Obama’s second-in-command, “Uncle Joe” was one of the best-loved figures in the country. Since the death of his friend John McCain, he appears to be the last of our Splendid Old Men: the citizen-statesmen who forged true friendships across party lines and for whom “compromise” isn’t the same as “surrender”.
The nostalgia for this more respectful and sober epoch in American public life is the main reason that Biden leads the pack vying for the Democratic nomination in 2020 – and he hasn’t even declared his candidacy. Few would have used the word “decorous” to describe the country’s political atmosphere during the Obama years, but many Republicans surely wouldn’t mind a return to the status quo ante bellum – that is, the relatively calm waters of US government before Donald Trump took the helm.
But what about Biden’s faith life? Were he elected, the first Catholic vice president in American history would become the second Catholic president. At a time of unprecedented turmoil in the US Church, Biden would do more than any other American to set the tone for Catholicism in this country.
At 76, Biden still sees himself as a grown-up Catholic schoolboy. “You’re looking at a kid who had 12 years of Catholic education,” he has said. “I woke up probably every morning saying: ‘Yes, Sister; no, Sister; yes, Sister; no, Sister’.” He feels a deep debt to those nuns, who made it possible for him to overcome his childhood stutter and run for office. “I never had professional therapy,” he explained, “but a couple of nuns taught me to put a cadence to my speaking.” Biden also wears a rosary around his wrist that belonged to his son, Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015.
The childlike love for nuns and the use of prayer beads as an accessory is quintessentially American. But, then, the quintessential American Catholic tends to disagree with the Church on major public policy issues.
For instance, according to the Pew Research Center, 48 per cent of US Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases; 47 per cent believe it should be illegal. Biden is definitely in the former category. During the 2012 election cycle, he said that while he could “accept my Church’s position that life begins at conception” in his “personal life”, he would “refuse to impose that on others” who disagree.
Granted, in 1981, he supported an amendment to the Constitution allowing individual states to disobey Roe v Wade and outlaw abortion. Explaining his vote, Biden said he was “probably a victim, or a product, however you want to phrase it, of my background” – that is, his Catholic upbringing. Yet, during the 2012 election, he made protecting Roe v Wade central to his case against the Republican ticket. “The next president will get one or two Supreme Court nominees,” he said. “Do you think [presidential candidate Mitt Romney] is likely to appoint someone far-right, that would outlaw abortion? I suspect that would happen.”
Another poll by Pew conducted in 2018 showed that 67 per cent of American Catholics supported same-sex marriage, with just 28 per cent opposing. Biden again fits into the former camp. In fact, in 2016, Biden presided at the wedding of two White House staffers. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops promptly issued a searing statement on their blog: “When a prominent Catholic politician publicly and voluntarily officiates at a ceremony to solemnise the relationship of two people of the same sex, confusion arises regarding Catholic teaching on marriage and the corresponding moral obligations of Catholics. What we see is a counter witness, instead of a faithful one founded in the truth.”
And that’s not the first time he has received an episcopal rebuke. In 2008, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia (then Archbishop of Denver) said that Biden should refrain from receiving Communion because of his stance on abortion. When the University of Notre Dame awarded Biden the prestigious Laetare Medal, Archbishop Chaput condemned the “decision to honour a Catholic public official who supports abortion rights and then goes on to conduct a same-sex civil marriage ceremony just weeks later”. He called it a “baffling error of judgment” on Notre Dame’s part.
Biden also enjoyed a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI in 2011. While neither the Holy See nor the White House disclosed the nature of their conversation, Benedict condemned Catholic Democrats earlier in Biden’s tenure as Vice President. Following a 2009 visit to the Vatican by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Vatican released a statement impressing upon them the “requirement of the natural moral law and the Church’s consistent teaching on the dignity of human life from conception to natural death which enjoin all Catholics … to work in cooperation with all men and women of good will in creating a just system of laws capable of protecting human life at all stages of its development.”
So far, it doesn’t seem Biden has taken the Holy Father’s reminder on board.