U.S. President Joe Biden smiles as he speaks during his inauguration at the Capitol in Washington Jan. 20, 2021. CNS photo/Patrick Semansky, pool via Reuters

Glen Argan: Biden offers U.S. the same old normal

  • January 21, 2021

U.S. President Joe Biden is the most publicly religious American president since at least Jimmy Carter. Biden is knowledgeable of Catholic social teaching. He is comfortable talking about his faith, attends Mass weekly and prays his rosary regularly. Yet, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is not comfortable with Biden. The reason? He is an unabashed supporter of abortion rights.

Theologian Massimo Faggioli details the relationship between Biden and the U.S. Catholic Church in his book, Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, published by Novalis in Canada on Jan. 20. In fact, the book is as much about the new president’s foes on the Catholic far right than about Biden himself. Faggioli maintains that Biden will find it a greater challenge to be “the Catholic president of all Catholics” in the U.S. than to be president to the country itself.

Biden received warm congratulations from Pope Francis after his election victory in November while the response from the USCCB was “clearly hostile,” the author states. Faggioli’s sympathies lie with Biden and Pope Francis — different though they are — rather than with what he calls “the American theological-political complex” comprised of right-wing bishops and an elite of wealthy, powerful Catholic laity.

This “complex” does not get much of a hearing from Faggioli although he trots out its sins relentlessly. Are the bishops correct in asserting that Catholic elected officials should stand unequivocally against legal abortion? Faggioli doesn’t say. Are the bishops right in seeing the Church under siege from a militant secularism? Faggioli skirts the issue.

It’s a difficult question, how Catholics are to participate in politics without compromising their principles. You can retreat into a cocoon and pretend that the world outside traditional Catholicism doesn’t exist (the so-called Benedict option) or you strive to be the leaven in the dough seeking to ensure that the human dignity of all, especially the marginalized, is respected.

So far, no one has retreated into the hills. Instead, the U.S. bishops and pro-life movement have glommed onto the Republican Party in hopes of turning back the tide on abortion. But be serious! Who was the last truly pro-life American president? Has there ever been one?

As for those who have tried to be the leaven in the dough, too often have they lost their leaven and been consumed by the secularist majority.

In Faggioli’s view, the opposition of the American Catholic right to a Biden presidency is a smokescreen for its opposition to Pope Francis himself. “The new illiberalism of conservative Catholics in America is a form of opposition to Francis’ anti-moralistic and anti-bourgeois interpretation of the Gospel message,” he writes.

Pope Francis has not abandoned Catholic moral teaching, but he has given it less emphasis than his contention that the Church should be a field hospital for those who suffer. “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security,” Francis wrote in The Joy of the Gospel.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile that understanding with the support that the majority of white American Catholics gave Donald Trump in the 2020 election. The Trump administration was implacably hostile to the papacy of Pope Francis. Yet, many leading Catholics supported Trump.

However, Biden will not be a saviour who ends the violence in American society. Abortion issue aside, he is still not above criticism. Independent journalist Glenn Greenwald points out that he was the Democrats’ main advocate for the Iraq War, is a proponent of law-and-order policies and is a loyal servant of the credit card industry which has been a leading contributor to his political campaigns. Expect a Biden administration to use war as a tool for foreign policy, cater to Wall Street and restrict freedom of speech, Greenwald says. These are aspects of Biden’s world view to which Faggioli gives no attention. Biden will strive to rebuild the old normal, but don’t expect him to be the herald of a new era of peace and justice.

(Argan is a member of the Novalis Publication Board but was not involved in discussions over whether to publish Faggioli’s book.)

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