There has been an avalanche of commentary—much celebration, as well as agita and suspicion—about the election of the second Catholic president. Reactions usually depend on where one falls on the ideological spectrum and how deeply one is invested in, or worried about, Catholic influence in our common life. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic, thinks Biden “has elevated his own liberal Catholicism to the center of our national life.” I’m not so sure of that. Biden’s unselfconscious piety is appealing, but hardly likely to inspire religious renewal, let alone fervor. But if the U.S. bishops make the mistake of pushing him out the church door because of his position on abortion, it would certainly draw some national attention to his faith.
The ascendance of liberal Catholicism as a possible “new religious center to our divided society” is not a development Douthat had anticipated, nor is it one he relishes. He is respectful of Biden’s sincere faith, but unconvinced that liberal Catholicism has much to offer our increasingly secular and “decadent” culture. Douthat does concede that “liberal Catholicism sometimes seems to capture the universalist aspiration of the church better than its conservative and traditionalist subcultures.” But he warns that too appears as little more “than a vague spirituality, a generic humanitarianism. Which means that the liberal Catholic worldview is constantly in danger of simply being subsumed into political liberalism, with all religious distinctives shorn away.”
A healthy liberal Catholicism ought to recognize that such dangers do exist. Writing in the New Yorker, Paul Elie notes that, “Biden’s nondoctrinaire Catholicism is driving comparisons with Pope Francis, who has vexed traditionalist U.S. bishops much the way Biden has.... The hope is that the Biden Administration will invigorate American Catholicism, and visa versa.” It is important to understand, Elie goes on, that Francis “is much more progressive than Biden” on climate change and neoliberal capitalism. He proposes that Biden use Francis’s outspokenness and the broader language of faith as an inspiration to move “emphatically leftward” on domestic and economic issues. Yet Biden’s status as a “churchgoing, rosary-carrying,” Communion-receiving Catholic is anything but secure. Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB, issued a firmly worded statement on Inauguration Day condemning Biden for “pursuing certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage and gender.” Abortion, Gomez insisted, “remains the ‘preeminent’ issue.” Elie worries that “the same Catholic traditionalists who detest Pope Francis detest the new president, and spiteful right-wing resistance may block any progressive initiative from Biden, as it has blocked those of Francis in Rome.”