Faith Matters

Joe Biden becomes only the second Catholic after JFK to be elected US President

Joe Biden is only the second Catholic to be elected as President of the United States. He is unapologetic in speaking about the faith that sustains him and which he says informs his 'idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world', writes Diarmuid Pepper

Joe Biden, the US President-elect, gestures to the crowd after making his acceptance speech on Saturday in Wilmington, Delaware. Mr Biden is the second Catholic to be elected as US President - John F Kennedy, another Democrat with Irish connections, was the first. Picture by AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

ON Saturday, after several days of staring at the electoral map, CNN finally called the election for Joe Biden (Donald Trump's beloved Fox News called it 15 or so minutes later).

It means Kamala Harris will become the first women, and the first woman of colour, to hold the office of Vice President.

It also means Mr Biden will become only the second Catholic, after JFK, to become President of the United States; Habemus Potus.

Joe Biden's Catholicism - or lack thereof - became a point of contention amongst some during the presidential campaign.

When he attended Mass in South Carolina last year, a priest refused to grant him the Eucharist because of his voting record on abortion.

Fr Robert Morey said "any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching".

It is worth noting, as Mr Biden did when asked about this incident, that Pope Francis doesn't appear to agree with this position, given that he offered the Eucharist to Mr Biden.

First things first: Joe Biden is a Catholic. That is not up for debate; he is baptised into the Church and is also a practising member of the Church.

On the morning of the election, he began his day with a visit to his church. He then visited his son Beau's grave; he carries a pair of Rosary beads Beau gifted him wherever he goes.

Mr Biden's biographer says "nothing is more sacred (to Biden) than his Church" and one of his staffers says he is "an authentic person of faith".

On the morning of the election, Joe Biden began his day with a visit to his church. He then visited his son Beau's grave; he carries a pair of Rosary beads Beau gifted him wherever he goes

Secondly, something as important as the Eucharist should not be allowed to be turned into a political football. If we deny the Eucharist to people who are pro-choice, then where do we draw the line?

Should the Eucharist also be denied to people who are in favour of the death penalty?

Ought it be denied to people who downplay Covid-19 or who refuse to wear a mask, given this is a decidedly 'anti-life' position in the midst of a deadly global pandemic?

Should it be denied to people who don't take environmentalism seriously, in light of the encyclical Laudato si'?

As Pope Francis reminded us, the Eucharist "is not a prize for the perfect".

President-elect Joe Biden leaves St Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church on Sunday. Mr Biden speaks openly about how his "idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion". Picture by AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Mr Biden's views on when life begins align with the Church. In a 2015 article in the Jesuit magazine America, he said: "I'm prepared to accept that the moment of conception is a human life convened."

However, he added: "I'm not prepared to impose a precise view that is borne out of my faith on other people."

In an earlier 2005 interview, Mr Biden said he "had to prove that he wasn't ruled by his beliefs" and he was "with John F Kennedy on the role religion ought to play in politics".

Some Catholics would have you believe that Mr Biden is not a 'real' Catholic and that Donald Trump was the preferred candidate for president given his apparent pro-life outlook.

Being 'pro-life' is about a lot more than being against abortion. It is not pro-life to knowingly downplay a global pandemic, belittle those who wear a mask in order to protect and save lives, and to host super-spreading rallies (a recent study estimates the Trump rallies have resulted in 30,000 additional Covid-19 cases and at least 700 Covid-related deaths).

It is not pro-life to lock up children in cages and separate them from their parents (the cages were built under the Obama administration but the use of them increased dramatically due to Trump's zero-tolerance policy).

Nor is it pro-life to downplay and excuse police brutality when African-Americans are being killed at an alarming rate by the police.

On Sunday, President-elect Joe Biden visited the cemetery where his son Beau, his wife Neilia, and daughter Naomi are buried at St Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church. Mr Biden carries Rosary beads given to him by Beau. Picture by AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

During the election campaign, Biden repeatedly said that "the soul of the nation is on the ballot".

Usually, this would be a very trite line but it truly was the case in this election.

On one side, was Donald Trump - a serial liar (Trump made over 20,000 false or misleading statements while in office as of July) who among other things stands accused of being a white supremacist sympathiser and a misogynist.

As Sister Simone Campbell reminded the Democratic National Convention, Trump "ignores Catholic teachings on care for the Earth, feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrant".

On the other side is Joe Biden, a man who says Pope Francis is "the embodiment of Catholic social doctrine that I was raised with".

Mr Biden described this doctrine as follows: "The idea that everyone's entitled to dignity, that the poor should be given special preference, that you have an obligation to reach out and be inclusive."

In a later interview, he said his "faith implores me to embrace a preferential option for the poor".

When the election count was too close to call, and when Trump tried to cast doubt over the legitimacy of the election, Mr Biden told us to "keep the faith".

His Catholic faith has been a major part of what has been a life filled with grief and personal turmoil.

His wife and daughter died in a car crash in 1972 and his son Beau died of cancer in 2015.

When interviewer Stephen Colbert asked Mr Biden how he copes with this grief, he spoke of how he finds "comfort" in going to Mass and saying the Rosary.

Mr Biden also quoted the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who said "faith sees best in the dark", and added that all of the good things in his life have revolved around his faith and theology.

Joe Biden's Catholic faith has been a major part of what has been a life filled with grief and personal turmoil

In his acceptance speech at the weekend, Mr Biden said that in the run-up to election day "he began thinking about a hymn that means a lot to me and my family, particularly my deceased son Beau".

That hymn was On Eagle's Wings. It "captures the faith", he said, that sustains him and that he also believes sustains the United States.

"I hope it can provide some comfort and solace to the 230,000 Americans who have lost a loved one to the terrible virus," said Mr Biden.

"And he will raise you up on eagle's wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of his hand.

"And now together, on eagle's wings, we embark on the work that God has called on us to do, with full heart and steady hands and a thirst for justice."

Mr Biden may not be a perfect Catholic - but who among us is? Catholicism can be messy and hard; St Paul was a notorious persecutor of Christians; Blessed Bartolo Longo was once a satanist; Servant of God Dorothy Day had an abortion.

The Trump administration was at constant odds with the teachings of Pope Francis; the Pope said many of his policies were "not Christian", while Trump said Pope Francis was "disgraceful".

How refreshing it will be to have in Joe Biden a President of the United States who says his "idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion".

Diarmuid Pepper is a broadcast journalist with Northern Sound News who previously worked as a Philosophy and Religious Studies teacher.

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