Joe Biden was sworn in yesterday as the 46th President of the United States. By virtue of the office he now holds, he is the most powerful and influential Catholic layman in the world. Arguably, he is now the most powerful lay Catholic head of state since Napoleon Bonaparte – a comparison we ought not to read too much into, but not neglect either. The point is that having a Catholic at the head of the most powerful country in the world is, for better or for worse, no small thing. And of course, Biden’s presidency will have a tremendous impact on the Catholic Church here in America.
For better or worse, Biden’s words and actions as president will shape how the Catholic faith is perceived and understood. For tens of millions of Americans, even a modest return to “normalcy” – to the familiar ways of our politics – will be a welcome change after the tumultuous years of the Trump administration. The outgoing president, and especially the events of recent weeks, has set that bar very low.
For better or worse, Biden also takes office at a time when the opposition party is in disarray. The Republican post-mortem on the Trump presidency will be – interesting. Some will look to double- or triple-down on Trumpism. Others will look to scrub all remnants of the Trump legacy from the party of Lincoln. It’s not clear how either of these strategies leaves the Republican Party both unified and strong enough to be a majority anytime soon.
Democrats have their own intra-party squabbles, but they are far more unified and control the White House and both houses of Congress, albeit with slim majorities. Massive swings in political fortunes happen more often that we tend to think. Now is probably not a great time to bet against the careening nature of our politics. That said, wild swings tend to follow massive overreaches by the governing party. The narrow margins with which Democrats control Congress might make such overreach less likely. Scads of Trump appointments to the federal courts might act as a brake as well.
President Biden has expressed his intention to govern for unity. Whether that means tempering or even opposing some of the more left-wing impulses of his own party (and his own campaign promises) in order to build consensus or governing with the “I won; you lost” attitude preferred by his two immediate predecessors is yet to be seen. The opportunity for moderation and compromise is real, but the current level of partisan acrimony could make that path a very difficult one, even if the president wanted to take it. Good intentions will not be enough.
And that brings us back to the importance of President Biden’s Catholic faith for the Church in the United States. If President Biden’s idea of unity involves going out of his way to take positions antagonistic to his own Church – on abortion, religious freedom, gender issues, etc. – is there anything the bishops, individually or collectively, can do about it?
Archbishop José Gómez, the USCCB president, drafted a statement for the Biden inauguration. It was even-handed, and even hinted at the relief some bishops feel after four years of Donald Trump: “[I]t will be refreshing,” Gómez writes, “to engage with a President who clearly understands, in a deep and personal way, the importance of religious faith and institutions.”
On that and several other matters, the statement is partly conciliatory, speaking – as bishops are wont to speak – of possibilities for collaboration and dialogue. But the statement also reminds the incoming president that there are important things about which he and the bishops sharply disagree: “[A]s Pope Francis teaches, we cannot stay silent when nearly a million unborn lives are being cast aside in our country year after year through abortion.”
Apparently, the statement was not to the liking of the Vatican Secretariat of State, which – no jokes about synodality, please – insisted the release of the statement be delayed. The statement was eventually released in full (here), but not until after the Inauguration and after Pope Francis’ had put out his own statement (here).
The reality is that President Biden will push the limits of what is seen as “acceptable action” for Catholics in public life. This may not be true in a doctrinal or canonical sense – a point that is not to be overlooked. But as a practical matter, it is hard to argue otherwise.
For decades, the implicit measure of Catholicism has been engagement in public life. This is true both of those who measure Catholicity by fidelity to the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life and marriage as it is for those who measure Catholicity by commitment to various social assistance programs. The bishops, for their part, have not succeeded in challenging the premise – political engagement – underlying both of these (partial) measures of fidelity.
We have come to a point where Catholic political activism – both left and right – is at a fever pitch, but Catholic faith is waning.
In his first homily as pope, Francis warned of what happens when the Church’s mission is reduced to activism. It is a warning that American Catholics on both right and left would do well to heed: “[W]e can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord. . . .When we do not profess Jesus Christ, the saying of Léon Bloy comes to mind: ‘Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.’ When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.”
If the impotence of the Church in shaping public affairs is a loss of one kind, perhaps it can mark an opportunity of another sort. The proclamation of the Gospel, not toward the goal of political change, but to spreading faith in the God who saves.
© 2021 The Catholic Thing.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.