Some 70 million US citizens are Roman Catholics, about 22% of the total population. In the 2020 elections the Catholic vote split half and half between Trump and Biden but only 44% of white Catholics voted for Biden. Some 20 million Americans identify as Latino Catholics (about 55% of the overall Hispanic population) and of these Hispanic Catholics the vote was 67% for Biden, 26% for Trump. Thanks to voter registration activists such as Stacey Abrams and Black Lives Matter, the black vote, especially in states like Georgia came out in force. It was even more pro-Biden than the Hispanic (polls indicated that in some states 90% of black female votes were going to Biden). American voters are racially split and the Biden presidency relies on minority voter turn-out.
These figures alone illustrate the problem for a white Catholic President who asserts his Catholic identity. Ethnicity and origins play an important role in determining voting behaviour, but three other features of the contemporary USA give Biden cause for concern. The first is that as a Catholic President he must position himself in relation to national politics riven by ‘culture wars’ turbo-charged by the Republican Party. The Tea-Party movement with its mixture of right-wing populism, shrink-the-federal state anti-Washington activism plus anti-immigrant policies, emerged in 2009. Trump’s drive for white supremacy, support for racist voter suppression, and rhetorical championing of favourite evangelical Christian themes, particularly opposition to abortion laws and same-sex marriage, made these goals seem politically achievable, but only by the Republican Party.
The second concern for a Catholic President is that the culture wars have seeped into the US Catholic Conference of Bishops. The American Church was already polarised - between a strict traditionalist social conservatism with an in-built bias towards Republican politics, even in its Trump extremes, and a liberalism committed to social justice at ease in the Democratic Party. Biden faces, and has faced, strictures from a minority of conservative bishops about his political position on abortion and to a lesser degree his attitude towards gay and divorced people receiving the Eucharist. “The President doesn’t believe what we believe about the sacredness of human life” Archbishop Joseph Naumann, head of the Catholic bishops’ Pro-Life Committee told the prestigious US magazine, The Atlantic. He was not referring to Trump’s accelerating the use of the death penalty during his last days in office.
The Democratic Party does not pick radicals for their Presidential candidates, that is why they rejected Bernie Sanders and chose the centrist Biden. Anyone who read Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti would see, that the Pope is politically a prophetic radical thinker who has more in common with Bernie Sanders than the President. But the Republicans perceive Biden as an ally of Pope Francis, who is himself under fire, and they have succeeded in placing the President firmly on the ‘enemy’ side of the culture wars in a Church divided nationally and racially as well as globally.
As Massimo Faggioli points out in his recent Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, Biden’s own Catholicism, pious, un-intellectual, and compassionate reflects the openness to the world of Pope John XXIII and the second Vatican Council. The Council document Gaudium et Spes (Joy & Hope), issued on 7 December 1965, the day the Council ended, begins with: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.” The problem for Biden, who would endorse these words, is that since the 1970s the Council and its documents have been subtly, and not so subtly, undermined by neo-conservatives, re-interpreted and politicized. When the social conservatives in the American Church looked outwards they saw Obama as the leader of a militant secular modernization and an overweening federal State, with Biden as his misguided Catholic apprentice. And for many their enemies’ enemy, Trump became, at least electorally, their friend.
The third concern for Biden is that this polarization within the American Church has contributed significantly to division within the global Church that came of age with the appointment of an Argentinian, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as Pope Francis. The cardinals chose a Pope from the global South further shifting the centre-periphery model of a Eurocentric Church towards a more networked, less command and control Church, a process described in my Global Catholicism: towards a networked Church, Hurst 2012. Rome remained pre-eminent but the Curial bureaucracy surrounding the Pope found itself downgraded and under serious pressure to reform. The large American Church, traditionally punching well below its weight, assumed more significance, especially when Archbishop Carlo Mario Viganò, Vatican ambassador to the USA from 2011 to 2016, lead a virulent attack in 2018 on Pope Francis alleging homosexual conspiracies and Vatican cover-ups of sexual abuse. Viganò, a former chief of Vatican Curial personnel, was able to draw on his wide range of personal contacts in his attempts to create a movement to marginalize and smear the Pope. He failed but the tension within the divided American Church remains.
Biden can expect more moral support from the current Pope than from his two papal predecessors but it is support that may come with a political cost. The President finds himself at the intersection of an unholy set of inter-related and interlocking pressures: notably the tens of millions of Catholics who voted for Trump ignoring his four years of attempted destruction of democracy. He and the Pope are singing from the same hymn sheet over the climate crisis, sharing a compassionate openness towards gay sexuality, and a commitment to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, notably to Mass in the vernacular. In America the Latin Mass had become something of a right-wing cause supported by several bishops, Cardinal Raymond Burke, formerly archbishop of St. Louis the most prominent. These divisions within Catholicism mirror the divisions within the nation which President Biden has the enormous task of healing. He cannot look to the American Church to be part of the solution.
Biden’s leadership as Commander in Chief during the tragedies of defeat and hasty evacuation in Afghanistan has done nothing to heal divisions in a shamed nation. Even though his new thinking about US military intervention will have found approval in Rome he has received no accolades and derived little inspiration from the American Catholic hierarchy. It is high time they ended censorious and curmudgeonly criticism and show more concern for the future of democracy and the task of national healing that awaits America’s second Catholic President.
See The Article 02/09/2021