17 August 2020, The Tablet

Biden emphasises Catholic faith in US election campaign

Biden received the Laetare Medal, the highest Catholic honour in the United States, from the University of Notre Dame in 2016.

Biden emphasises Catholic faith in US election campaign

Joe Biden delivers his speech at a special audience of Pope Francis, Vatican City, Vatican on April 29, 2016
NurPhoto/NurPhoto/PA Images

A recent exchange of words between President Trump and the Democratic candidate for president, Joe Biden, has highlighted Biden’s roots as a practising Catholic. 

Joseph Biden, born in 1942, was educated in a series of Catholic schools and entered the US Senate at the age of 31, where he spent 36 years representing the state of Delaware. Barack Obama selected Biden as his running mate in the 2008 election, and the pair entered office in January 2009. Biden served eight years as Vice-President and was seen as one of the most prominent Catholics in the US during this period.

Biden has referenced his Catholic faith explicitly during his campaign, with a recent video by the Democrat National Convention featuring a speech by Biden about his meeting with Pope Francis, his education by nuns, and the way Catholic values influence his worldview. But the former senator- who, at 77, would be the oldest president in US history if elected - has come under fire from fellow Catholics for his views on abortion. Last week, one US Bishop, Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, took to twitter to suggest that Biden wasn’t a Catholic. With religious voters forming a key demographic in the upcoming general election, Biden’s faith is likely to play an important role in his campaign. 

The presidential candidate describes himself as a “devout catholic” and has been practising – and active – Catholic for most of his life. He is reported to carry a set of rosary beads that belonged to his oldest son, Beau, with him in his pocket. Beau, a former attorney and army officer, died of brain cancer in 2015. His younger son, Hunter Biden, has served with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a Catholic initiative that sends young people to work in low-income communities. Biden himself has spoken publicly about his faith in lectures, print and television interviews, referring especially to the role his spiritual life played in helping him heal from Beau’s death, and the car accident that took the life of his first wife and infant daughter in 1972.

During the 2015 Papal visit to the United States, Biden was a key figure in organising the visit, and Pope Francis’s speech to Congress. Biden received the Laetare Medal, the highest Catholic honour in the United States, from the University of Notre Dame in 2016. In statements, interviews and campaign literature, Biden has emphasised the importance of faith in his personal life, and in his sense of public service. After President Trump claimed that Biden was “against religion” and would “hurt God”, Biden said in a response that “faith has been the bedrock foundation of my life”. His Catholic spirituality has “provided me comfort in moments of loss and tragedy, it’s kept me grounded and humbled in times of triumph and joy”.

Biden’s political record has, however, been the subject of criticism from other Catholics, including Church leaders, who see Biden as departing from Catholic teachings on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. After the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2015, Biden officiated a same-sex wedding between two White House staffers in 2016, at his official residence. This decision attracted an unusually direct response from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), who issued a statement calling Biden’s actions “a counter-witness, instead of a faithful one founded in the truth,” and accused Biden of “spreading confusion” concerning the Church’s teaching on marriage. 

On abortion, Biden’s position has also evolved over the years, and he maintains that he is “personally pro-choice”. As abortion has become a politically polarised question in the US, Biden, and the Democratic party nationally, have become increasingly pro-choice. Last year, Biden dropped his longstanding opposition to the use of federal funding to subsidise abortion providers, and has stated that if elected he would seek to “codify Roe v Wade in law”. These views are likely to prove controversial amongst some American Catholics. Biden has already been denied communion once during his primary campaign, when a South Carolina priest refused the Eucharist to Biden during Mass, citing his support for Roe v Wade.

If elected in November, Biden would follow John F Kennedy to become the second Catholic President in US history. His faith may well prove a significant boost to his election chances: White Catholics, a key element of Trump’s winning coalition in 2016, have been shifting to support Biden, according to opinion polls. His general election campaign will, however, also be likely to illustrate the deep divisions amongst American Catholics over issues like abortion.

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