'Emancipated and pious': the Biden paradox

On the day that Joseph Robinette Biden was sworn in as President of the United States, a new book by Massimo Faggioli was published: Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States.

Faggioli is an Italian historian and theologian who is based in the United States. He lectures at Villanova University and writes for various publications including the liberal Catholic publication, Commonweal.

Like many other books which appear at the start of a new president’s term, this work examines the man in question in light of broader political or cultural developments.

And like other books of this ilk, Faggioli’s is short (161 pages) and contains little about the subject which is noteworthy or new.


The structure is basic. After providing some historical context on Catholicism and public life in America, the author examines this further by looking at the different experiences of the four Catholics who have been presidential nominees: Al Smith (who discovered to his cost in 1928 that anti-Catholic bigotry ran very deep), John F. Kennedy (who succeeded by emphasising the private nature of his religious beliefs), John Kerry (whose pro-abortion views generated criticism from the Church in 2004) and lastly, Joe Biden.

From that point on, the book becomes more rambling, as Faggioli describes changes within American Catholicism over the course of recent pontificates, the resistance to Pope Francis which he detects among America’s bishops, and the similarities he sees between the Pope and the new President.

Some of this would have been interesting too, had it been written by a less partisan writer and more serious thinker.

The author’s dislike of conservative American Catholics - and more to the point, his steadfast refusal to consider their point of view in good faith -- blights this book, as does his extreme reluctance to criticise their left-leaning co-religionists.

John Kerry, under fire for supporting for partial-birth abortion among other abuses, “did not particularly need catechism lessons, either from the Republican party or from the bishops,” Faggioli writes.

“Biden is a devout Catholic but not a bigot,” he says, “emancipated and pious,” one of the last “grown-up Catholics” in the Romano Prodi mould.

In sharp contrast, he argues that Republican Catholics support economic, fiscal and environmental policies which are incompatible with Church teaching, and the cooperation between President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II in opposing Communism “constituted a kind of ideological doping.”

The future of the American Catholic Church, to Faggioli, is the socialist congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whereas Supreme Court justices such as Amy Coney Barrett are not merely conservative but illiberal, like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

As is the fashion among undergraduate essayists, the prefix “neo” is frequently attached to conservatives here: although it adds nothing, it sounds suitably frightening.

After going out of his way to smear the “Vendée”-like tendencies of conservatives, Faggioli shows the same enthusiasm in defending the Democratic Party, which in this account appears to be a saintly ideal of common good-based politics, except for -- as he delicately phrases it -- “a certain libertarianism on questions of defence of life.”

In plainer terms, this means that they insist their country should have some of the most extreme abortion laws in the world, that no individual State should be allowed to differ, and that every American taxpayer -- regardless of their beliefs -- must fund infanticide.

One particularly distasteful element is the invidious comparison between Pope and President, whose “election to the highest office took place at the same age and as a second act, almost too late, after a life shaped by personal tragedy, spiritual introspection, and ideological repositioning.”

This would be more apt had Jorge Mario Bergoglio energetically campaigned for the role for 35 years, abandoning or betraying every principle he ever claimed to hold along the way, before at last being elected by a conclave who could not stomach the alternative choice of Bernie Sanders as pontiff.

This is a worthless book.

Joe Biden is not the future of American Catholicism, and mercifully, Massimo Faggioli is not the future of political and religious analysis.


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