Picking a Catholic to be your running mate can be a dicey proposition these days. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius is in a public fight with her bishop who has banned her from receiving communion because she vetoed a bill restricting abortion providers. Conversely, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine’s moderately pro-life stance would have rankled many on the left. Joe Biden shares Sebelius’s pro-choice credentials without the prospect of a fight with his bishop, and like Kaine, he has woven his faith into the very fabric of his political biography.
Joe Biden began his political career as a pro-life Democrat but like many other Catholic Democrats, including Ted Kennedy and Ed Muskie, he flipped after Roe v. Wade. "Well, I was 29 years old when I came to the US Senate, and I have learned a lot," Biden said, explaining his switch. "Look, I’m a practicing Catholic, and it is the biggest dilemma for me in terms of comporting my religious and cultural views with my political responsibility." This ambivalence is reflected in his 36% rating from NARAL and his support for a ban on partial birth abortions. Still, during his long tenure as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to Roe, enough to earn him the criticism of pro-life Catholic groups.
Unlike some pro-choice Catholics who have gotten into trouble with their bishops, Biden does not even have a bishop right now. Wilmington’s new bishop, W. Francis Malooly, will be installed September 8th. Malooly, a native of Baltimore, rose in the ranks under the tutelage of two moderate bishops, Archbishop William Borders and Cardinal William Keeler, neither of whom joined their more conservative confreres in the effort to deny communion to pro-choice politicians. Malooly has never run his own show, as he is about to do in Wilmington, but it is doubtful he will provoke a confrontation with Biden given his mentors, both of whom are living and able to offer counsel.
Biden is more comfortable than most politicians in talking about how his Catholicism has affected his life and his views. In his campaign book last year, Biden wrote, "My idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion. It’s not so much the Bible, the beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, or the prayers I learned. It’s the culture." This shows a nicely nuanced understanding of how religion mediates its political views through the culture, and gives faith a more foundational role in his worldview, one not reduced to mere personal ethics. Biden says his Catholicism taught him that "abuse of power" is the cardinal sin of politics, and that such an abuse of power was precisely what caused him to fight violence against women at home and the Serb genocide in Bosnia. He gave a fascinating interview to the Christian Science Monitor on the role of his faith in his life and in his politics last year. Too often, religion is seen by politicians as an add-on, a box to check, right after "beautiful wife" and before "Harvard Law," but Biden seems to have genuinely allowed his faith to leaven his politics.
It is doubtful Biden was chosen because of his Catholicism. And it is also doubtful that his Catholicism lends his surrogacy greater weight. But, insofar as his Catholicism has endowed him with a belief in the necessity of solidarity, compassion, and human dignity in our politics, Biden embodies a more nuanced, complicated view of how religion and politics can mix within one candidate. And recognizing such complicatedness is a good thing for both Church and State.
Michael Sean Winters