THE morning that America went to the polls last week began very differently for the two presidential candidates. Donald Trump’s first call was to the mega-conservative TV station, Fox News. Joe Biden went to early-morning mass at his parish church, leaving the service early to visit the church’s graveyard where his first wife and daughter (who died in a car crash) are buried alongside his son, who died of brain cancer in 2015 — but not before urging his father to run for President.
Mr Biden looks set to be the second Roman Catholic President of the United States. His faith and the public pronouncements that he has made about it offer some interesting clues to what we might expect from his presidency.
Headlines about Catholicism in the United States generally centre on abortion or gay marriage. Those are not revealing topics with Mr Biden. On abortion, like most practising Catholic politicians, he insists that he doesn’t think it right to impose his personal views on others. Like 61 per cent of American Catholics, he approves of same-sex marriage.
But, when his friend Senator Chris Coons was asked what drove the President-elect, he replied instantly: “His view of the world is rooted in his Catholic faith, which teaches that everyone is made in the image of God and that the abuse of power, through racism or classism, is sinful. He’ll bring that concern for others to his leadership. Nothing upsets him so much as the mistreatment of those who are perceived as lesser.”
The director of the Franciscan Action Network, Stephen Schneck, said: “Biden actually sees his Catholic faith as a key for bringing the country back together and overcoming divisions. . . He thinks there’s something in Catholicism itself that provides a ground where both sides can find a common place.”
But what kind of Catholicism? Mr Biden has in the past written: “I’m as much a cultural Catholic as I am a theological Catholic. . . 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.”
His interactions with popes have been interesting. As far back as 1980, Pope John Paul II had one of the longest meetings of his early pontificate not with a world leader, but with the 37-year-old Senator Biden, and their conversation ranged far and wide. When Mr Biden met Pope Benedict in 2011, he chastised the pontiff, The New York Times reported, for the Vatican crackdown on the American nuns who had taught him. When he met Pope Francis in 2015, the pair talked about the death of Mr Biden’s son. The exchanges illustrate the breadth of his Catholicism.
When asked about popes, he once told a reporter: “I’m a John XXIII guy.” Perhaps he meant the liberality that sprang from that pope’s traditionalist roots. But perhaps we should remember also that John XXIII was a man who came to the top job late in life, and, contrary to all expectations, set about revolutionary change.
Perhaps there was more than rhetoric to Joe Biden’s insistence that the recent election was “a battle for the soul of the nation”.