Joe Biden’s Liberal American Catholicism
The president’s first faith, like that of most American Catholics, is in liberalism.
There have been many articles written about President Joe Biden’s Catholic faith. And understandably so—Mr. Biden has made his Catholic faith a central talking point of his campaign and presidency. A recent and insightful Time article takes an in-depth look at President Biden’s “personal faith” and the ongoing debate between “liberal” and “conservative” (the use of quotes will soon become apparent) Catholics about the authenticity of this faith.
This debate almost always takes on the same form. Blue-leaning Catholics laud President Biden’s more progressive display of Catholicism, which they see as the future of the Church in a world that is growing increasingly secular. To them, Biden is evidence of the need to change Church doctrine. For red-leaning Catholics, “Biden embodies a more liberal version of the faith that poses a threat to the future of the church in America.” They see his outward displays of faith and his policy positions on abortion and gender ideology, which directly contradict longstanding Church teaching, as scandalous at best, downright heretical at worst. To this camp, it is not the doctrine that needs changing but Joe Biden himself.
I have nothing to add to the ongoing debate about whether Joe Biden is a good Catholic, a bad Catholic, or not Catholic at all. Enough ink has been spilled on this point. What I do think is useful, though, is looking at the major point that both sides of the Joe Biden faith debate miss: Joe Biden’s liberal American Catholicism. Without question, Joe Biden is a liberal American Catholic, and it is exactly because of his liberal American Catholicism that his outward actions are sometimes so hilariously inconsistent with Catholic orthodoxy, while at other times they are not so much. Most of those who end up on either side of the Joe Biden rock-throwing experience are liberal American Catholics, too.
Since I’m sure this has left many readers flummoxed, I want to be clear that I’m not arguing that the president is a liberal Catholic in the sense that most modern Americans understand the word—as interchangeable with “progressive” on issues of doctrine and morals—although he may very well be that, too, as many have argued. I claim instead that President Biden, like practically all Americans and most American Catholics, subscribes to a fervent and undying faith in liberalism and that it is this liberalism that drives his, and their, Catholic faith.
Liberalism, though obviously a sociopolitical philosophy too nuanced both in its theory and its application to be fully analyzed here, generally holds that the individual is the center of society and that all political efforts should be made to prioritize individual freedom of choice. Instead of seeking first the common good, communal tradition, and shared values, we pay homage to an individualistic creed that orders the created above the Creator, the temporal over the eternal. Liberalism speaks of “liberty” and “rights” as things the government has the power to give and take, and it does so in a way that ignores objective truth. Anything that makes someone “happy” or wealthy is to be encouraged, affirmed, and then labeled a “right.” At bottom, liberalism posits that no authority—no matter how just or true—outside of the individual is binding on how one lives.
The American liberal condemns authoritative restraint or direction of any kind, whether on the matters of faith, on the market, or on sexuality. Liberal American Catholics are no different. Instead of asking what the Church actually teaches and then forming their consciences accordingly, they first ask what they want to do and believe—usually what is convenient and comfortable. Then, after they have decided what end they wish to achieve, they pick the teachings that align with that end and discard the inconvenient rest. Often called “cafeteria” Catholicism, this picking and choosing leads to some hilariously inconsistent positions, and it happens with Catholics on both the “right” and the “left” of American politics. This inconsistency is symptomatic of, and indeed encouraged by, most Americans’ undying faith in liberalism as the basis for all religious, political, and cultural thought.
Given the strength of culture, it is no surprise that most American Catholics are liberals first, Catholics second. Because liberalism so disdains restraint and even rightful authority, it empowers those living under its rule to be their own authority—to pick and choose which aspects of truth they wish to adhere to. It encourages a “personal faith,” but it does not condone “religion.” A personal faith allows you to select portions of the truth, to modify it to your ends, and to discard it if it no longer proves useful or is inconvenient to express in public. But religion? That would require a system of unchanging, collectively shared values, rules, and obligations and thus a level of restraint on the individual that is entirely unacceptable in a liberal society.
In this vein, Joe Biden’s “personal Catholic faith” is uniquely American and undeniably liberal. Indeed, his compartmentalized faith should make perfect sense to any keen observer of American culture. On the one hand, President Biden claims that he’s a “practicing” Catholic, and hard evidence suggests that he is in fact a regular Mass-goer and that his faith has been incredibly important in his life. At the same time, his many outward actions and policy positions are flatly inconsistent with the Church’s longstanding teaching on the immeasurable dignity of the human person and the purpose of human sexuality.
But can you really blame him? Liberalism has taught him that he can be whatever he wants to be. Joe Biden is just doing what generations of American liberal Catholics have been formed and encouraged to do: Pick what you like and kick what you don’t. Make the necessary alignments and adjustments to advance your personal, professional, and political goals. In the end, no one can tell you what to do, and, besides, the Church doesn’t even teach that idea you don’t like anymore. It’s your personal faith. Just don’t make waves.
This is not meant to be a rock-throwing escapade against Mr. Biden. He is hardly alone. There are many self-described conservative or libertarian-leaning Catholics who are also liberals in their own right. In one way or another, these American liberal Catholics privilege the individual over the common good and the license to do whatever you want over the liberty to do the good. We see this most often in the form of market idolatry and a refusal to recognize the excesses of capitalism and corporatism. They argue that faith can be removed from business transactions, the same compartmentalization that President Biden engages in. They ignore the many popes who have condemned exactly what they promote and discard those teachings that make them less than comfortable. They too speak in terms of “rights” language well beyond what natural law requires. They may call President Biden a liberal, but they are liberals, too. It’s in their American DNA.
Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, says that “the regular average Catholic is a lot like Joe Biden.” She’s mostly right. The regular average American Catholic is indeed a lot like Joe Biden: ideologically inconsistent, slightly relativistic, and mostly individualistic. American liberals first, Catholics second. It’s what liberalism demands.
Ben Hachten is a trial lawyer and a member of the Federalist Society, the Catholic Bar Association, and several other Catholic organizations.