How Joe Biden’s Catholicism Shapes His Life and Approach to Politics

Christopher White offers an in-depth look at how Joe Biden’s Catholic background and faith have shaped his life and approach to politics—and how it might affect the 2020 campaign:

Biden credits those Catholic roots — which first took seed in parishes and parochial schools in Pennsylvania and Delaware — with teaching him the importance of the human dignity of all people, a core principle of Catholic social teaching. They also shaped his understanding of solidarity, especially with the poor and the working class, which he regularly cites when talking about job security and economic policy.

Most importantly, his is also a faith that has been tested by personal loss of an enormous magnitude and one that has come into conflict with Democratic policy positions, forcing him to change and evolve along the way to keep up with shifting uniform stances within the party.

Now, at 77, the former senator and former vice president could be on the cusp of becoming only the second Catholic president in U.S. history. He is hands down the most comfortable Democratic politician of his generation talking about the role religion has played in shaping his approach to public life. As such, John McCarthy, the deputy national political director for the Biden campaign, told NCR that “faith outreach is probably the most integrated it’s ever been on a presidential campaign” for a Democratic candidate….

Over the years, Biden’s abortion stance has increasingly liberalized. In a 1974 interview, he said, “I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion. I think it went too far.”

But as the pro-choice platform became Democratic Party orthodoxy, Biden shifted, too. In a 2012 vice presidential debate with Catholic Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, Biden said, “I accept my church’s position on abortion. … I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews.”

This position has evoked the ire of some Catholic bishops and Catholics like Carr who have criticized Biden for falling in line with the “extremism” of the Democratic Party’s position on abortion. Schneck told NCR that it’s a profound disappointment to see Biden further shift to support federal funding of abortion during the 2020 primaries.

“I disagree with the vice president on this issue, but I don’t see this as suggesting he’s not a good Catholic,” said Schneck, who still believes that voters will have with Biden a president who takes faith and people of faith seriously….

For thousands of people across the United States, Biden’s public experience of grief has proved to be a point of connection, often mirroring tragedies in their own life, and a chance to empathize over this most basic of human experiences.

When Biden appeared on Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” a few months after Beau’s death, the two Catholic men bonded over their shared experiences of suffering and reconciling loss with faith.

“My religion is just an enormous sense of solace,” Biden told the late night host, who had lost his own father and two brothers at a young age. “What my faith has done is it sort of takes everything about my life with my parents and my siblings and all the comforting things and all the good things that have happened, have happened around the culture of my religion and the theology of my religion, and I don’t know how to explain it more than that.”…

Melissa Rogers, who was then executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, told NCR that ahead of the visit, Biden also met with religious and civil society leaders to solicit their support on practical ways they could punctuate the pope’s visit with policy initiatives reflecting common ground between the White House and the Holy See.

Those meetings resulted in a series of executive actions to increase refugee admissions to the U.S. and efforts to combat climate change, which Rogers said is “an example of how Vice President Biden understands the positive roles that people of faith can play in public life.”…

Instead of only showing up at houses of worship for a photo op, Biden rearranges his schedule to ensure he doesn’t miss a holy day of obligation. Rather than achieving national fame for taking pride in telling individuals, “You’re fired,” one of Biden’s most frequent refrains has been about the dignity of work. Instead of pointing to bestselling books or buildings on Fifth Avenue as chief accomplishments, Biden calls the 2016 decision by the University of Notre Dame to award him with the Laetare Medal, the highest prize in American Catholic life, as the most meaningful honor of his lifetime.

“The best thing we have on our side is the vice president being who he is,” campaign staffer McCarthy told NCR, adding, “When you’re trying to reach faith voters, it’s all about authenticity.”…

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