U.S. President-elect Joe Biden addresses the protests at the U.S. Capitol in Washington as the Congress held a joint session to certify the 2020 election results. CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

Biden poses issues for U.S. bishops

By 
  • January 14, 2021

With five dead, a move for impeachment and FBI agents fanned out across the U.S. to identify and arrest people who violently stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, theologian Massimo Faggioli finds it mystifying that the U.S. bishops are treating a rosary-praying, Mass-going president-elect as their biggest political problem.

Less than two weeks after Joe Biden’s election victory in November, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops struck a working committee to study the challenges presented by a new administration led, for only the second time in American history, by a Catholic. While they expect Biden will support Catholic positions on issues such as immigration reform and climate change, they also expect him to continue supporting policies “that are against some fundamental values we hold dear as Catholics,” including the elimination of abortion.

Meanwhile, a right-wing campaign was attacking American trust in democracy, demanding that judges and state officials overturn the results of a fair election. When that didn’t work, the angry minority physically attacked their own government at the instigation of President Donald Trump.

“They (U.S. bishops) have a problem,” Faggioli told The Catholic Register. “They have pretended in these last few months, but also the last few years, that in this country there was no problem with democracy.”

Faggioli has brought a theologian’s perspective to the state of American democracy in a new book scheduled for release Jan. 20, the same day Joe Biden will take the oath of office. Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States is being published by the international Catholic publisher Bayard and distributed by Novalis in Canada.

Having watched as rioters breached Capitol security, Faggioli now believes there will be even greater scrutiny brought to bear on the American bishops’ unspoken bargain with Trump on abortion. While the bishops avoided drawing attention to the president’s endorsement of racist and neo-Nazi rioters after the 2017 “Unite The Right” event in Charlottesville, Va., as they side-stepped direct attacks while objecting to his immigration policies, they got in return public statements endorsing the pro-life movement and conservative judicial appointments.

“I am personally against abortion. I think Joe Biden and the Democratic Party should really change their language, their sensibility and their appeal on that particular issue,” Faggioli said. “But I cannot see how we can justify this position of many bishops in this country that has let this administration get away with everything — just because they were given a few judges that have already said, by the way, on the record that they will not be able to overturn the legalization of abortion. They’ve said that already. So what was it for?”

After the election of John F. Kennedy as America’s first Catholic president in 1960, the Church at the Second Vatican Council moved to embrace democracy, said Faggioli. In most places since Vatican II, the faithful have recognized that both the Church and the world are diverse and democracy provides a means for people and communities to accommodate one another.

In his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis has extolled democratic values and culture against the rising tide of populist politics washing over the world. But in recent years, conservative Catholic intellectuals and American bishops have found themselves uncomfortable with the Church’s embrace of democracy, said Faggioli. 

The bishops opposed President Barack Obama, “who was really bringing a more diverse America,” Faggioli said. “The Trump presidency offered to some of the bishops, and some of the clergy and theologians, a reassurance in the sense that this country is really not going to change — that we can take our country back, or our Church back.”

Many of the biggest supporters of Trump among the bishops and in Catholic media have also been anywhere from cool to disdainful of Pope Francis, said Faggioli.

The problem for the bishops is they may no longer be in step with their own Church. The U.S. Church is now more than half Hispanic. Nearly one-third of American Catholics were born outside of the U.S. and immigration is driving some of the most dynamic and engaged corners of the Church. At the same time, most of the bishops remain white and tied to Irish, Italian, German or Eastern European roots.

“How dangerous the dream to recreate a Catholic faith that is shielded from a reality that is plural, diverse, even among Catholics,” Faggioli marvelled.

There are problems with American left-wing Catholicism. Faggioli is particularly worried about gleeful liberal abandonment of traditions and seeming contempt for the faith of working-class Catholics who love the Mass and listen to their pastors.

“But there is no equivalence, I think. Because on the right they have enabled a dictator,” he said.

America’s new Catholic president is “rooted in that kind of middle-of-the-road Catholicism,” said Faggioli.

“He’s not particularly intellectual. He’s devout. He’s gone through his own struggles in his faith. He represents the body of the Church much more than a theologian or intellectuals or even other politicians. Biden comes from that Catholicism of the post-World War II era that was still really united. It was still one Catholic Church that was not polarized.”

Catholic or not, American bishops are not going to get everything they want from a President Biden. “There has to be some kind of realism or pragmatism with the election of Joe Biden,” Faggioli said. 

But unlike the days of Kennedy, Catholics are no longer strangers to power. From the Supreme Court through both houses of Congress, “Catholics have really become insiders in Washington,” Faggioli said.

“It’s a destiny that Catholics in this country must own. They can’t claim to be outsiders anymore. It’s an important moment, because it will call Catholics to demonstrate what they have become.”

Comments (1)

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Thank you! This reality within our North American Catholic Church needs to aired through today's existential lenses. Indeed many of our Bishops are out of touch with today's vibrantly relevant Catholics who grasp the Spirit's wisdom as revealed...

Thank you! This reality within our North American Catholic Church needs to aired through today's existential lenses. Indeed many of our Bishops are out of touch with today's vibrantly relevant Catholics who grasp the Spirit's wisdom as revealed through the Encyclicals of Pope Francis as Pope Benedict XVI lived on.
Caritas in Veritate that grew into Laudato Si revisited in Fratelli Tutti and all of them shared universally through the media in the space of only eleven years.
What say our Pastors?
Respectfully,
Peter Tetro, Kingston

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Peter Tetro
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