President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address was missing his Catholicism, writes commentator

He had the opportunity to show the complexity of Catholic thought — but didn’t do so.

(Kenny Holston | The New York Times) President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on March 7, 2024. Looking on are Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La.

President Joe Biden has long claimed to be a serious Catholic, the kind who goes to Mass regularly and keeps a rich prayer and devotional life. At times he even claims to accept unpopular teachings of the church, including the teaching that human life begins at conception.

But many Catholics say that Biden, while raised a cultural Catholic, is subject to the ideology of his party and its leaders, who actually run the show when it comes to how he governs as president. As such, they argue, his Catholicism shows up only if it happens to rhyme with “big D” Democratic values.

Which is really a way of asking: What does it mean to claim one is Catholic?

In his State of the Union address, Biden said nothing that suggested anything like an explicitly Catholic commitment. Zip. Goose egg. That Biden might believe in God at all was only weakly suggested by the politically mandated final line about God blessing the troops.

Given this, we are left with only the implicitly Catholic stuff in the speech, of which there was quite a lot. Among other things, Biden discussed the rights of racial minorities, about improving the lot of the middle class and the poor. He talked about the right to health care and strongly valorized unions. He wants to bring down rents and help with child care. He suggested a new way to care for the elderly, including by reimbursing family caregivers. He said he wants to secure the border but also welcome immigrants and refuse to separate children from their families. He insisted on clean energy and other ways to fight global climate change.

Many of these ideas and proposals are consistent with principles taught by the church and its social doctrine. Some, such as his concern for climate change, have been important themes of the current papacy. But they were also consistent with the views of Biden’s party.

What Biden said about abortion

Biden could have bucked Democratic shibboleths by calling into question the massive military aid he and other Democrats (and even some Republicans) are asking from Congress to extend the Russia and Ukraine conflict. Instead of countering Pope Francis’ insistence on peace, the president opened his address by insisting on more war and, by implication, more dead and massively more profits of the U.S. military-industrial complex with no peace or resolution in sight.

Nor did Biden remotely approach a faithful position on the church’s teaching that prenatal human beings are full members of the human family and deserve equal moral and legal consideration. Francis has rightfully called abortion “homicide” and a “white-collar Nazi crime.” Biden, despite his career’s worth of claims that he believes life begins at fertilization, used the State of the Union message to undermine the Catholic vision of prenatal justice.

Indeed Biden couldn’t even bring himself to suggest abortion was a morally complex issue. Everything related to life issues was rendered in stark black and white, beginning with the wild extremism of Roe v. Wade, which gave the U.S. one of the most extreme abortion policies in the world. Biden lumped all women together as pro-abortion-rights voters, erasing the millions of Catholic and other women who are deeply skeptical of the idea that abortion is essential for their social and legal equality.

Biden’s championing of in vitro fertilization also goes against the Vatican’s continued opposition to the practice. Francis recently spoke out against surrogacy in the strongest possible terms, calling for a global ban on the practice. Biden, again, saw no nuance in evaluating U.S.-style IVF practices, instead asserting he would guarantee the freedom to engage in the practice nationwide. The pain of infertility is real, and something my family and I have experienced personally, but the president showed no evidence that he is moved in the slightest by the teaching of the church on the topic.

So does Biden accept the teaching of the church or the authority of the pope? If the president claims to have Catholicism at the heart of who he is, as he has said, shouldn’t we expect him to reflect it when the light is shining on him brightest?

Certainly, many of those who like to say Biden’s Catholicism is hollow quarrel with Francis’ positions and even challenge his authority. Many of these same people tend to see issues in black and white. But it cannot be said that these Catholics lack a genuine commitment to a Catholic understanding of ultimate truth — what theologians sometimes refer to as a “source of ultimate concern.” That is simply not present in the president. A Catholic perspective, on this view, is just one of many sources of truth.

A challenge for the political left and the right

For these folks, a Catholic approach often takes a back seat to rival sources of concern, such as the ideologies of the political parties they support. Such people are functionally polytheists — what Christ asks of us, according to Catholic teaching, is important in deciding some issues, but on others the church is trumped by different visions of the good. This happens with those on the political left as well as the political right.

The folks who put the church’s understanding of what Christ asks of us at the heart of who they are, though obviously as imperfect or inconsistent as any of us, reject any ideology that conflicts with their Catholicism — their true source of ultimate concern.

All who claim to be a Catholic can ask themselves how their life and work diverge from secular ideology when it comes to their behavior or beliefs. Self-confessed Catholics who wield power can ask how their policies put Catholic teaching ahead of expediency and profit. A Catholic health care worker will have views that go against America’s dominant ideology on abortion and IVF. Catholic employers will have views on the rights of workers at odds with the dominant ideology of the role of the “free” market. They will wrestle with themselves and others to adhere to what is true.

It’s true that these are complex issues. Catholic politicians who have views at odds with the ideology of their party may wrestle with how to be fair, and their pronouncements and policies would at least invite others to wrestle with them as well. The authentic struggle of putting the truth of the faith at the heart of one’s life is a visible one, and a strong leader can allow others to see it in him.

Letting Americans see it might even make for a stronger union.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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