What might a Biden presidency look like? Pope John XXIII could give us some clues.

Left: Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden delivers a speech from Wilmington, Del., Aug. 20, 2020, during the virtual Democratic National Convention. (CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters) Right: Pope John XXIII (Wikimedia Commons)

A leader many said was well past his prime, who had left the seat of power and returned home, a man well into his twilight years, who had never subscribed to the more extreme views of his contemporaries, suddenly found himself, at age 77, elected to the top job.

The person is not former Vice President Joe Biden—at least not yet—but Cardinal Angelo Roncalli. Cardinal Roncalli, elected pope 62 years ago today and choosing the name Pope John XXIII, was viewed by his fellow cardinals as a safe bet. They expected him to return the church bureaucracy to something resembling normal, to keep the Vatican machinery humming. That Pope John would go on to reform the Catholic Church dramatically and bring it into the modern era was not part of their plan.

There are, of course, great limitations in trying to draw too close a line between a pope and a president. One has absolute authority and the other has to contend with Congress, public opinion and financial realities. The church canonized Pope John XXIII in 2014. The feelings of some Catholic leaders in the United States about Mr. Biden’s candidacy, meanwhile, especially those who condemn his support for abortion rights, suggest sainthood is not in the cards for the former vice president, to put it mildly.

And yet, with days to go until the U.S. presidential election and polls showing a narrow path to victory for President Trump, perhaps embedded in the story of the papacy of John XXIII lie clues to what a Biden presidency may accomplish.

With days to go until the U.S. presidential election, perhaps embedded in the story of the papacy of John XXIII lay clues to what a Biden presidency may accomplish.

“The most obvious thing is that they would become leaders at the same age,” Massimo Faggioli, a church historian and the author of John XXIII: Medicine of Mercy, told America. “What else they would have in common would be an unexpected second act.”

The reign of Pope Pius XII, John XXIII’s predecessor, had been long and tumultuous, with the Vatican navigating the political complexities of the Second World War followed by Pius’s theological crackdown in 1950. Pope Pius asked Cardinal Roncalli to take a Vatican post in 1957, but the cardinal demurred, choosing instead to more or less retire from Vatican politics and instead focus on finding “interior peace.” At age 77, Cardinal Roncalli planned to spend the remainder of his days at home in Venice.

But the following year, 1958, the church needed a new pope, someone who could calm the waters after a stormy century. Two candidates emerged. One was born in the Soviet Union, and the associations with Communism made the possibility of his election controversial. That left Cardinal Roncalli, who because of his advanced age, years of experience in the Roman Curia and his more centrist views was seen as a viable option for the job. The cardinals elected him after more than 10 votes, and he took the name Pope John XXIII.

In reporting on the election the next day, The Los Angeles Times noted that in contrast to the noble lineage of Pius, the new pope was “the son of a northern peasant family” and that he “satisfied almost all shades of hope and prayer” among Italians, who wanted a pope who was “not handicapped either by being too young or by political attachments.” (One similarity to the pope’s 1958 election Mr. Biden would probably like to avoid is election night confusion as to the winner. In 1958, onlookers in St. Peter’s Square were initially confused about whether a pope had been elected, because the chimney above the Sistine Chapel emitted smoke that was neither black (no new pope) nor white (new pope) but brown. The Vatican’s newspaper editorialized at the time that the tradition about the meaning of the color of the smoke was started by “bumpkins” and that it was outdated. Smoke signals, however, are still used today.)

Decades later, in 2012, one of then-Vice President Biden’s aides sent him a note, which contained a quotation from Pope John XXIII, Politico reported in 2014.

“I must not disguise from myself the truth,” the pope said. “I am definitely approaching old age. My mind resents this and almost rebels, for I still feel so young, eager, agile and alert. But one look in the mirror disillusions me. This is the season of maturity.”

“I must not disguise from myself the truth,” the pope said. “I am definitely approaching old age. My mind resents this and almost rebels, for I still feel so young, eager, agile and alert.

Should Mr. Biden still desire the presidency—he had run unsuccessfully in 1988 and 2008—the note was meant to convey to him that time was running short. He would need to launch a campaign soon to compete with the presumed frontrunner, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Mr. Biden scratched a note back, quoting the poet Dylan Thomas, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But he ultimately decided not to run, seeing the Democratic establishment fall in line behind Ms. Clinton and ultimately having to cope with the fatal illness of his son Beau. Pundits declared Mr. Biden’s decades-long career in public service over, with The Atlantic describing Mr. Biden in 2016 as “the vice president who will not be president.” Mr. Biden, seemingly free to focus on shaping his legacy and his charitable work, could perhaps turn his attention, as Cardinal Roncalli did before him, to finding his own interior peace.

Four years later, in 2020, Mr. Biden is the Democratic nominee. His campaign has focused largely on issues of national unity and what he calls a “battle for the soul of the nation.” If polls are correct, Mr. Biden seems well positioned to win the presidency on Nov. 3.

Just three months after Pope John XXIII’s election, he announced he would launch an ecumenical council, a major undertaking that could enact sweeping changes in the life of the church. The revelation came at the end of a week devoted to Christian unity. As Professor Faggioli writes, the announcement of the council shocked the cardinals who had sought in Cardinal Roncalli a return to normalcy. “It was a definitive sign that his pontificate would be a transitional one but in a very different sense from what some of his electors thought—some of whom received the news...in deafening silence,” he writes.

John XXIII launched a council that made sweeping changes to the church, including the use of local languages at Mass, an emphasis on the role of the laity and a commitment to unity among the world’s religions.

Though he faced stiff opposition, including delaying tactics from some church leaders who sought to use the pope’s advanced age to their advantage, John XXIII launched a council that made sweeping changes to the church, including the use of local languages at Mass, an emphasis on the role of the laity and a commitment to unity among the world’s religions.

Might Mr. Biden, who will be 78 years old if he is sworn in as president in January, aim for similarly lofty heights, recognizing that in all likelihood, this will be his final shot to shape public life? Political pundits seem to think so. And some of Mr. Biden’s supporters hope those goals will include seeking unity in a deeply divided country.

“We cannot divide the country, we have to work together,” Carolyn Woo, a former head of Catholic Relief Services and a member of Mr. Biden’s Catholic outreach group, told America. “As a country, we know, divided we cannot stand, we could only operate on a united basis.”

Mr. Biden has presented himself as a politician able to form consensus across ideological lines, but his age may make him attempt some bolder action.

Mr. Biden has presented himself as a politician able to form consensus across ideological lines, but his age may make him attempt some bolder action.

“Biden’s instincts are those of a consensus builder,” the Catholic political scientist and writer E. J. Dionne Jr. told America. “But he is also, at age 77, more likely to say, ‘This is my shot in life to make a real mark solving some very deep problems, and I ought to take it.”

Mr. Dionne said that while Mr. Biden is “a bipartisan sort of person, deep in his bones,” his experience in the Obama administration, which faced intense opposition from Congressional Republicans, may have shown him the limits of seeking bipartisan support. But Mr. Dionne added that Mr. Biden’s biography makes him “a culturally comfortable figure to a lot of Americans who might be more conservative, not necessarily right wing or extreme, in their gut.” Plus, he said, Mr. Biden will not be subject to attacks fueled by racism, a reality that Mr. Obama confronted.

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Mr. Dionne believes Mr. Biden may be capable of ushering in large-scale change, in the spirit of the New Deal, when it comes to labor rights and the economy, as he wrote in The Washington Post, and that he may be able to help bridge the divide between Americans who are religious and those who are not.

“Biden has an opportunity to reduce some of the distance that people feel from each other,” Mr. Dionne said, pointing to a report he co-authored with the former Obama administration faith outreach director, Melissa Rogers, about religion and public policy.

“Biden’s instincts are those of a consensus builder,” E. J. Dionne said. “But he is also, at age 77, more likely to say, ‘This is my shot in life to make a real mark solving some very deep problems.”

Other commentators have also pointed out that while Mr. Biden is still viewed as a moderate by many voters, his views in areas such as the economy, climate change and health care are more progressive than other Democratic candidates for president have held in recent years.

On climate change, an issue important to the current pope, Mr. Biden is also shooting for the moon, releasing a plan that Rolling Stone declared “could be a formative step to addressing the climate crisis.” Mr. Biden’s big plans, which include spending $2 trillion to slow global warming and enact a jobs revolution in renewable energy, could prove difficult to enact. But to have a leading presidential figure push them at all is a breakthrough, activists say. The journal Nature endorsed Mr. Biden earlier this year, publishing an editorial reading, “On climate change, Biden would return the United States to the Paris agreement, and is proposing the most ambitious domestic climate policies ever advocated by nominees from the country’s major parties.”

Noting that it is possible a Biden administration may be limited to one term, The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer wrote in a recent story about Mr. Biden’s plans, “that limited opportunity to govern might prove a wellspring of energy. He knows he has only a fleeting opportunity to fix the crisis of the century, just a short moment in which to realize his basement dreams of transformation.”

Perhaps Biden already sees the parallels in Pope John’s papacy. He told The Delaware News Journal in 2008, “To sum it up, as a Catholic, I’m a John XXIII guy.”

According to the news agency UPI, reporting on Cardinal Roncalli’s election, Pope John XXIII was expected to be a “twilight pope,” a leader “to reorganize church mechanisms” but “not have a lengthy reign.” The Associated Press, in an article that ran on the front page of The Wilmington (Del.) Morning News in 1958, when Joe Biden was 16, said Pope John XXIII was seen as a “transition pope, not destined to institute any notable changes in church policy.” Just a few months later, the new pope would announce a council that completely reimagined the church.

Mr. Biden would be the nation’s second Catholic president and the oldest, turning 78 before inauguration day. Perhaps he already sees the parallels in Pope John’s papacy. Mr. Biden told The Delaware News Journal in 2008, “To sum it up, as a Catholic, I’m a John XXIII guy.”

When Mr. Biden read the note from his aide in 2012, there were a few lines missing from Cardinal Roncalli’s quote.

“This is the season of maturity,” then-Cardinal Roncalli wrote. “I must therefore produce more and better, thinking that perhaps the time allotted to live is short, and I am already close to the gates of eternity.”

More Stories from America:
-Joe Biden quotes Pope Francis’ new encyclical to warn against ‘phony populism’
-Families hurt by addiction know exactly the pain (and love) Joe Biden feels for his son, Hunter
-Can a pro-life Catholic vote for Joe Biden? Vatican II has an answer.
-Why I can’t vote for Joe Biden: a response to John Carr

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