Joe Biden is only the second Catholic to be elected president of the United States. What, if anything, should we make of that fact? Given the nation’s increasing secularism and the consequent attenuation of religious tribalism, I’m not sure we should make much of it. Editors at the National Catholic Reporter disagree. In a recent editorial they named Biden “NCR’s Catholic Newsmaker of the Year,” and expressed a degree of shock that it has been sixty years since John F. Kennedy squeaked into the White House. The editorial presents some good reasons for giving Biden that appellation, as well as a few dubious ones. It begins with the suggestion that “if the United States is still a democracy 100 years from now, it will be, at least in part, thanks” to the president elect. That’s a bold, if hedged, bet and a premature judgment, to say the least. It’s a bit reminiscent of the Nobel Committee awarding its peace prize to Barack Obama during his first year in office. Informed of that honor, Obama famously responded, “For what?”
The case for Biden’s importance, as NCR sees it, has a lot to do with his unselfconscious piety. He’s a “churchgoing, rosary-carrying, prayer-quoting Catholic,” known to attend Mass even on Holy Days of Obligation, something most Catholics no longer do. For these reasons, NCR’s editors deem Biden “the most prominent American Catholic,” and even an “inadvertent evangelizer.” The editorial criticizes his troubling allegiance to the Democratic Party’s “extreme” position on abortion rights, but praises his recognizably Catholic defense of “the human dignity of all and solidarity, especially with the poor and working class.” His greatest political skill, also inspired by his faith, is a gift for “public empathy.” As the country recovers from the Trump presidency and continues to battle the pandemic, “we will now have a gifted public empathizer” in the White House.