The danger of Joe Biden’s empty Catholicism
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February 4, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — Joe Biden is a man of many epithets. There is Joe Biden of Scranton, the blue-collar guy who understands the plight of the working class. There is Joe Biden the Sufferer, whose life story has granted him supreme empathy for every person on the face of the earth. But perhaps no title figures more prominently in the Biden mythology, or has proven more useful, than that of Joe Biden the Devout Catholic.
That title has been especially ubiquitous since his ascendance to the presidency just weeks ago. Following Biden’s inauguration, paeans to his Catholicism were numerous throughout the media. “Joe Biden has been back in Washington for six days, and already he has attended Catholic Mass twice,” gushed the BBC. “Religious leaders welcome Joe Biden’s election as 2nd Catholic to win presidency” ran the ABC News headline. The New York Times feted him as “perhaps the most religiously observant commander in chief in a half-century.”
Meanwhile, during the first White House press conference, a reporter from EWTN asked for clarification regarding Biden’s shifting position on taxpayer funding of abortion. In typical style, Press Secretary Jen Psaki sidestepped the question by instead offering the journalists a quick refresher on the Biden lore: “I will just take the opportunity to remind all of you,” she said, “that [Joe Biden] is a devout Catholic and somebody who attends church regularly.” Next question.
Such comments have presented a stark contrast to how Democrats often treated Catholicism prior to Biden’s candidacy. During the Trump administration, nominees to various positions were repeatedly scrutinized for associations as innocuous as membership in the Knights of Columbus. Some Democratic senators even suggested that belief in Church teaching was in itself disqualifying for public service — the most glaring example being Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) infamous declaration that Catholic dogma might live a little too loudly in now-Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
But all that has changed now, no doubt because Democrats realized they have a Catholic problem. Electorally, Democrats are concerned that Catholics and other Christians put so much stock in social issues, particularly in the plight of the unborn. In a recent discussion, for example, Nancy Pelosi told Hillary Clinton of her “great grief” that Catholics and Evangelicals, because of abortion, had been the deciding factor in the 2016 election.
And in terms of policy, Democrats seem to recognize that the full implementation of their current agenda, especially when it comes to abortion and gender ideology, will require the submission or subdual of the Catholic Church and Christian institutions in general. Nuns will have to pay for abortifacients, Catholic hospitals will have to provide sex changes, and so on. There is no room in their brave new world for any major institution that’s unwilling to get on board.
For a while, the left may have hoped to seize the Catholic hierarchy in the same way that they have come to control all the other institutions — by capturing the elites. But despite the fact that several prominent bishops in the country, and higher-ups in the Vatican, seem to be fully committed to the success of the Democratic Party, the kind of change they wished for has not materialized. Indeed, despite some loud objectors, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement on the first day of Biden’s presidency condemning the moral evils of the incoming administration’s agenda.
So now, the left has adopted a new strategy: to use their cultural power to redefine Catholicism away from moral teaching they oppose. Under Joe Biden, Democrats now seem intent on paring Catholicism down to a set of cultural identifiers and turning it into yet another identity group, the definition and contours of which they have the influence to shape.
The advantages of this plan are obvious. For one, it becomes very easy to transform anyone into the poster child of true Catholicism even if that person opposes Catholic belief in every particular. In Biden’s case, all one has to do is put out press releases when he goes to Mass, or take a photo of him with a rosary in his hand, or trot out some clergyman to speak at the inauguration. Nancy Pelosi has long recognized the utility of such cultural signifiers. In the same discussion with Clinton, she described her response to those who accuse her of insufficient Catholicity: “When you have five children in six years, you come around and talk to me.”
There is also a heavy institutional push to promote the new vision of Catholicism. Seemingly out of nowhere, an organization called “Catholics for Choice” has managed to acquire enough money to revamp their communications team, including by hiring a non-Catholic transgender Twitter celebrity as the new “Director of Communications and Strategy.” As for the media, the press seems incapable of calling Joe Biden a Catholic without appending the word “devout” to the front.
Of course, the word “devout” here does not mean anything about commitment to the substance of the faith, or adherence to moral doctrine. It is hard to call Biden, who is pursuing a radically anti-Catholic agenda on abortion and transgender ideology, “devout” in that sense. Instead, it denotes a sort of nebulous set of outward signifiers. Joe Biden is friends with priests, he goes to Mass, he owns a rosary. Moreover, he quotes St. Augustine and “On Eagle’s Wings.” What could be more Catholic than that?
Hadley Arkes has pointed out that Joe Biden is an “authoritative type”: someone likely, because of his office, to influence public opinion on what exactly it means to be “devout.” And that is the point. If the left can’t change the dogma or control the hierarchy to the extent that they would like, they will simply define these problems away. It is a similar sleight-of-hand to the Democratic attempt to whittle “religious freedom” down to “freedom of worship.” When religion is pared down to a set of certain external acts, you can punish adherence to the substance without being accused of persecution.
This is why Catholics, especially prominent ones, should not be excited about the present public theater of Catholic piety, nor should they fool themselves into thinking such lip-service is better than nothing. The cultural left is asserting the right to define what features of Christianity are essential and which are not, ultimately reducing the Church in the public eye to a nice club, devoid of moral substance and weight. It will smooth the road to persecution and help cover it up when it happens.
It was precisely for this reason that Christ warned of claimants to His authority “by their fruits you will know them.” And the full fruits of Joe Biden the Devout Catholic will be known soon enough.
Frank Cannon is president of the American Principles Project. You can follow him on Twitter @frankcannonAPP.