NEW YORK — At the start of Joe Biden’s campaign Massimo Faggioli had no plans to write a book. But as time went on, he realized the intersection of Biden’s faith, politics and a divided American Catholic Church couldn’t be ignored.
“It says a lot if the impact of the culture wars that has made not only U.S. bishops, but also other Catholics, less comfortable with Biden then with Donald Trump, but also Barack Obama,” said Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University.
“My book is an effort to unpack Catholicism in this context where it’s not just about having a Catholic background or being a Catholic member of the church, but also what kind of Catholic.”
Faggioli’s new book, Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, hits the shelves on Inauguration Day.
Faggioli spoke with Crux about his new book.
Crux: In the book, you talk about the need for Biden to heal and unify the country. How does he do that?
Faggioli: I believe there’s more certainty on the fact that he’s more able to understand and to connect with this particular moment in the life of the country because his life has been shaped by loss and by sorrow and by grief and he survived that.
There is something ministerial about that. When he talks to people you can see from his language, but also, he has a body language, that is really typical of the ability to empathize and to share what you’ve gone through yourself and give hope. I believe healing this country requires not just policies or executive orders but also recovering some sense that we are all in one boat.
You also talk about the other three Catholic presidential candidates in history – Al Smith in 1928, John F. Kennedy in 1960 and John Kerry in 2004. What’s the different about Biden and the climate of the country he’s stepping into?
Joe Biden was elected after a campaign, but also an entire life where he did not want to hide his Catholicism. Especially during his campaign, he did nothing to hide his Catholicism, if anything he highlighted it. This is very different from all other Catholic candidates for the presidency. For all of them Catholicism was an obstacle.
For a long time now being a Catholic in politics at the national level means having to answer some questions on abortion, LGBTQ rights, religious liberties, that John F. Kennedy never had to answer, even less Al Smith. This is a much more complicated situation that makes up the Catholic entity. It takes more work for a candidate to articulate and defend and stand up for his faith. If you look at [Biden’s] policies some are very questionable, but it’s very hard to question his Catholicism.
Pope Francis and his relationship with the American Catholic Church is mentioned a great deal in the book. How will the Holy Father figure into the next four years?
The election of Joe Biden for Pope Francis is very good news from an international affairs perspective. Joe Biden is someone that knows the Vatican well. As Vice President, he has been there already. He doesn’t need education on that and they both need one another.
I don’t think they need much time to start talking to each other or to cooperate. All that said, the Vatican and United States have worldviews on some issues that are very different. On short and medium term, I think there will be convergence. On the long term, different areas of interest will emerge. For example, one is China, where I believe U.S. policy is going to be harder than what the Vatican can afford to do.
I do believe for the Biden White House the relationship with the Vatican will be much easier than with the U.S. bishops. When Pope Francis called Biden on Nov. 12 it was clear they want to work together on at least two issues, especially the environment and immigration. It’s one of the elements that would suggest a triangle between a Catholic in the White House, U.S. Catholic Church and Vatican.
You also note the number of Catholics in prominent positions within the federal government. Namely President-elect Joe Biden, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and six of the nine Supreme Court Justices. What does that tell you about Catholicism in the United States?
Catholicism has become a really important voice and presence in American politics. It’s no longer a minority. At the same time, the internal divisions have become political. Those differences in a way of understanding Catholic teaching are destined to stay and to remain. This is something we need to accept because being Catholic in public life means mediating what you would like to do and what can be done, between what your faith thinks is good.
It’s also evident that those issues of Catholics in public life cannot be solved by sanctioning individuals because if you sanction Joe Biden, for example, that means you have to sanction half of the Catholic Church in this country and that’s something that’s really hard to imagine.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg