An idea from progressive Catholic theology might be useful for our times: pater patitur — the father suffers.
It goes like this: A father figure, divine or otherwise, isn’t meant to relieve our suffering. Nor should he suffer for us, which suggests condescension. And he certainly shouldn’t inflict suffering on us, as too many parents do with their children. Rather, the father’s role is to suffer with us.
We’ve seen this gracious and ultimately progressive model of fatherhood from Joe Biden in recent days in his run for the Democratic nomination.
Of course, a father is a father, and in this case a white one. Biden doesn’t speak from the political or social margins. Rather he speaks from the head of the table, where — likely as not — he’s having his pot roast served to him by a woman. And that woman may be simultaneously fighting off a lunging animal-rights protester, as Jill Biden, Joe’s wife, and Symone D. Sanders, his campaign adviser, did during Biden’s Super Tuesday speech.
But if we must have a white man as president, as we have had all but once in American history, let it be a well-intentioned one, a self-critical one, one who suffers with us.
Let it be the one who, like Biden, shows up at to sit shiva and to comfort a widow and to mourn at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., after the 2015 massacre. Biden is a man practiced in grief, who has learned vulnerability, resilience and how to give comfort.
And isn’t that what America needs right now as we fight against despair after Trump’s desecrations?
We don’t need the agitations of Bernie Sanders; we need a salve. And though this is much harder to admit, we collectively lack the fortitude and solidarity to respond to the clarion call of the peerless Elizabeth Warren, who in stronger times could have led us to a more perfect union.
As former FBI special agent and law professor Asha Rangappa put it recently, “Right now America needs some aspirin, a cup of soup and some TLC.”
And Biden knows how to administer TLC. Having lost a wife and two children, he now speaks as a forever-grieving widower and parent. He is familiar with loss in his marrow. And this is what allows him to see, with radical compassion, the facts of our country under Trump: family separations, border detention camps, ubiquitous guns, neglect of public health, the catastrophic effects of the climate crisis.
He also knows how, in times of distress, a country can forget its very reason for being: to care for the needy, to uphold the rule of law, to stick by its allies, to bend toward justice.
Hit by tragedy again and again, Biden has struggled not to lose faith. His son Beau, before he died of cancer in 2015, had to urge him not to close off his heart but to stay — as Biden says — “engaged.” Biden now seems determined not to go numb and call it stoicism.
Yes, he seemed to be hiding his light with the posturing and snippiness in the early debates, but in the lead-up and the aftermath to his campaign-changing victory in South Carolina, Biden stopped flexing, spitting bile at hecklers and boasting about how many push-ups he could do. He has candidly admitted to his stuttering “handicap” and his tendency to get anxious about it. He has cut back on the war whoops and the “I can beat him like a drum” chest-beating.
There are worries and losses that must weigh heavily on Biden, but which he can’t yet be candid about, in particular the anguish of his “surviving son,” Hunter, who has struggled with drug addiction and attendant recklessness. Republicans and Trump himself have relentlessly tried to frame Hunter Biden’s struggles, and particularly his ill-advised stint on the board of a Ukrainian company during the Obama administration, as a liability for his father. But Hunter’s troubles may in the end be a gift to Joe’s campaign, which the candidate has repeatedly dedicated to those “that have been knocked down, counted out, left behind.”
Biden once described Beau, whom he cherished, as a promising politician who “had all the best of me, but with the bugs and flaws engineered out.” But Beau can’t take up his father’s causes, and anyway, we don’t need a perfectly engineered person to lead us now. We know too well the danger represented by another president who believes himself to be flawless, all-powerful and infallible.
Biden, bugs in plain view, increasingly seems to be the right heartbroken man for this heartbroken time. He is not the perfect son, but the imperfect father — the one who suffers and suffers with us.