Sixty years after John F. Kennedy’s election, Americans are preparing to welcome a second Roman Catholic politician, President-elect Joe Biden, to the nation’s highest office.
Despite suggestions from some bishops that Catholics can’t be Democrats, early exit poll data suggests Biden won between 49% and 52% of the Catholic vote this year ― demonstrating the diversity of political views within America’s largest single religious institution.
As Biden heads to the White House, some Catholics are hoping his election will highlight a different side of their faith. These are the Catholics whose consciences place them in disagreement with church doctrine on culture war issues. It’s a segment of the religion that often gets overshadowed by the loud voices from the church’s staunchly conservative wing.
Biden, an Irish Catholic who carries a rosary in his pocket, spoke often on the campaign trail about how his faith has led him through periods of suffering in his life. He’s also spoken about how he’s been influenced by Catholic social doctrine, a set of church teachings about how faith should be lived in public life.
John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life Action, said the “sincere pride” and “quiet humility” of Biden’s faith reminded him of how his Irish American grandmother carried her Catholicism.
“Biden’s faith is an old-school, lunch-pail, ethnic Catholicism that animated places like Scranton,” Gehring said, referring to Biden’s hometown in Pennsylvania. “It’s a faith deeply connected to the dignity of work, respect for unions and a communitarian ethos that values the common good.”
“I imagine there will be more than a few Catholics who come from those places and that particular culture raising a beer in celebration,” he told HuffPost.
Although Biden’s stances on culture war issues have often placed him at odds with official church teachings, his views aren’t too far from those of many fellow U.S. Catholics. Most ignore church teaching on contraception, and a majority say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Biden has long been more conservative than many Democrats on abortion, but his agenda as a presidential candidate this year included plans to strengthen women’s access to the procedure.
Biden has also pledged to protect queer Americans’ rights ― even though the church views queer relationships as sinful and Catholic institutions have fiercely defended their ability to use religious exemptions to discriminate against LGBTQ people. In 2016, Biden served as an officiant at a wedding of a gay couple, reflecting a shift in the pews toward a more accepting view of same-sex marriage. Most Catholics also oppose allowing small business owners to refuse to serve gay or lesbian people for religious reasons.
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice advocacy group Network and a close ally of Biden’s, said she thinks of the president-elect as a “Pope Francis Catholic.” Francis has cautioned against Catholics becoming “obsessed” with issues like abortion, gay marriage and contraception, urging his flock to focus on serving the poor and oppressed.
Biden “integrates [his faith] into his lifelong quest to improve things for people in our nation, and his compassion and caring is for those who are too often left out,” Campbell said. “He represents the fullness of our faith.”
The Republican Party has manipulated Catholics into believing that they must fight for the criminalization of abortion, Campbell said. Biden’s approach to the issue is to care for the “unborn” by caring for pregnant mothers, Campbell said ― making sure they have health care, good nutrition, stable housing, affordable child care.
In her conversations with the president-elect, Campbell said she got the impression that while Biden personally opposes abortion, he doesn’t think he can force his religious views on others.
Biden has received fierce backlash from some pockets of American Catholicism for his stance on abortion. Last year, Biden was reportedly denied Holy Communion at a South Carolina Catholic church. A Rhode Island bishop suggested over the summer that Biden wasn’t a real Catholic, and a Texas bishop promoted the idea that Catholics can’t vote for Democrats.
But even among the bishops, there is disagreement about whether Catholics owe fealty to the Republican Party because of its opposition to abortion. A handful of American bishops ― most of whom were appointed by Pope Francis ― have criticized President Donald Trump and the GOP as being “anti-life” for failing to care about issues such as racism, workers’ rights, climate change and restoring protections for asylum seekers.
It’s unclear how the right-wing Catholics who attacked Biden’s faith will react to a Biden presidency. Gehring said the “quasi schism” between Catholic leaders who oppose Pope Francis and those who support him bleeds into fights about who owns the Catholic political narrative.
“Given how much animosity and contempt some showed toward Obama, I expect it will often get ugly,” Gehring said. “But my hope is there will be a distinction between reasonable conservative Catholics who will oppose some Biden administration policies without attacking his faith, and the far-right Catholic fringe that has no interest in building bridges or finding common ground.”
Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a scholar of Catholicism at Manhattan College, said she finds it “incredible” that for both of the Catholic men elected president, the pope was a liability, not an asset.
While campaigning, Kennedy had to defend himself against centuries-old discriminatory notions that Catholics held “dual loyalty”― that they couldn’t be trusted as citizens because they owed religious loyalty to the pope. According to Kennedy’s presidential library, the first Catholic president’s religious identity contributed to election losses in certain states.
Decades later, Catholics ― particularly white Catholics ― have attained positions of political power in Congress, as state governors, and on the Supreme Court. They are so far into the mainstream of American society that Pope Francis’s central message of caring for the poor, immigrants and the environment are seen as partisan issues, Imperatori-Lee said. White Catholics’ alliance with “culture-war conservatism” turned some members of the faith against a Catholic candidate who was actually in agreement with many of the church’s core teachings ― about the dignity of the human person, the importance of solidarity, and the importance of a fair wage and unionized labor, she said.
“As white Catholics have climbed the socioeconomic ranks, their concerns have turned away from labor issues (once the bread and butter for Catholics) to sexual issues,” Imperatori-Lee said.
The mark of a “Catholic president” is governing “with the most vulnerable in mind,” Imperatori-Lee said. Biden’s win means that the conservative wing of the church has a great deal of soul searching to do on race, sexism, and what freedom of religion means, she said.
The president-elect represents many “average Catholics who are just trying to do their best,” Imperatori-Lee said.
“If many of the more zealous or partisan bishops and priests who were telling their parishioners that you cannot vote for a Democrat and be a good Catholic would get to know their church communities more, I think they’d find a lot of people like Joe Biden in their pews,” she said.