Of all its problems, the Biden-Harris administration’s biggest hurdle is fulfilling the promise to build unity from a fractured and polarized citizenship. If Biden does build bridges across legislative aisles, his Catholic heritage may prove his greatest resource. New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat and Times’ national correspondent Elizabeth Dias have speculated on the political consequences of Biden’s alignment with liberal religious demographics. But this misses the real significance of his Catholic background.
Biden’s potential for promoting unity has less to do with the resonance of his public policies to a liberal religious voting demographic and more to do with the principles, habits, perspectives and instincts he has learned over more than 70 years of practicing the Catholic tradition.
Because the Catholic community had a dramatic pivot in the early 1960s, Biden has been “formed” in two different Catholic eras, one emphasizing continuity with the past and stability, the other recognizing the need for growth and change as history evolves. Both eras have uniquely formed his personality, values, character, dreams and ambitions, and appear in Biden’s speeches and in his two memoirs — “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics” and “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose.”
Biden grew up in a wraparound 1950s Catholic culture. In the Catholicism of his youth, faith communities operated in an almost monolithic structure of common prayers, rituals and experiences. The era emphasized that the human condition is a messy reality that is made sloppier by human imperfection and freedom, and requires Catholics to “order” their souls: to develop the instincts and skills to identify the good, the true and the beautiful in the midst of the chaos. Biden would also have learned that connecting with others along the fault lines of pain and suffering creates the “fellow feeling” necessary for a spirit of unity. This was reinforced when he lost his wife and daughter, and Republican senators became part of his support group.
But Biden’s Catholicism has also been shaped by the Second Vatican Council, an international gathering beginning just before Biden turned 20. Vatican II retained the time-honored Catholic moral belief that there is an objective truth that is both knowable and transcends different perspectives on reality. The council recognized that contextual issues must become a larger part of the conversation about living one’s faith, and it admitted that doctrinal assertions did not always compute easily with the challenges of life. The features of stability and continuity with the past had to make peace with the acknowledgment that discerning the truth, let alone applying it, is complicated, incomplete, and sometimes an evolving process. Catholic wisdom is traditionally “both-and,” not “either-or,” and the council highlighted the former perspective in new and controversial ways.
For the first time, the council also included social science analyses of the world in an official doctrinal document, and emphasized that religious belief needed to stay in dialogue with reliable information based on good science. This heightened the importance of the virtue of humility, and the need for a “listening” rather than just a “talking” church. Lastly, the council opened the doors of the church to all humans of faith and goodwill, and the world’s problems became the problems of the Catholic church in a new way. For the young Biden, applying the values of his faith to the civil rights movement became his first case study.
If the lessons of Biden’s Catholic background become part of his political strategy, rhetoric and leadership delegation — depending on ordered, centered personalities; connecting humans through compassion as a first step in building more trusting relationships; insisting on truth based in fact but tempered in humility — perhaps we can have a new American moment. Maybe the two-pronged wisdom of Biden’s Catholic past can inspire us to see each other as sisters and brothers in a common, noble enterprise so we try to address our problems.