Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States

by Massimo Faggioli

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



After a dramatic election amid a raging pandemic, racial violence, economic collapse and historic natural divisions that have threatened our democracy Joe Biden succeeds Donald Trump as the 46th President of the United States. For Catholics, this is a momentous occasion in US public life, as he is the second Catholic to be elected to the nation’s highest office, joining John Fitzgerald Kennedy.


This book would not have been possible without frequent collaboration with the Italian magazine Regno and Jesus, as well as with Muslino and Limes. My collaboration with the daily newspaper Europa from 2009 until it ceased publication in 2014 also played an essential role for Faggioli. On the English-speaking side, writing periodically and at fixed deadlines for the magazine Commonweal and La Croix International, as well as more occasionally for the National Catholic Reporter and the Tablet of London called for particular attention to the American Catholic question in the transatlantic and global context.


The reflections contained in this book took more concrete shape through the courses on Catholicism and politics in the United States that the author has taught since 2010, as well as the course on Catholicism and political modernity since 2013. His experience of teaching as an immigrant mostly American students about church and politics have been and still represents a challenge and risk in a highly polarized country; but observing this country through the eyes of someone who was born, raised and trained in Italy and Europe also has numerous advantages.

Biden’s presidency arouses not only political expectations but also religious even salvific ones. This Catholic president is now called upon to heal the moral and physical damage inflicted upon the nation by Trump, the pandemic and globalization. He is the fourth Catholic president to run for the American presidency (besides Kennedy, after Al Smith, in 1928 and John Kerry in 2004) It is an office that is political but also moral and religious, and he begins it in a moment of delicate transition for both the nation and the Catholic Church. What does it mean to be both Catholic and American? Catholics have had to engage in a certain kind of negotiation and mediation with their own Church, both on the national level and in terms of their relationship with the Vatican. Biden made his Catholic faith a central part of the campaign, and he proved once again that Catholicism has a prominent place in the American project: apolitical, civil, social and cultural project. On the other hand, it is a Catholicism that has found itself in conflict in a variety of ways and at various times on some key issues in public life in the United States.

According to Michael Sean Winter, National Catholic Reporter, the final chapter is a tour de force, most especially the subchapter entitled "The 'Culture Wars' as an Ecclesial and Political ifestyle." The decision to employ the word "lifestyle" is brilliant, novel and devastatingly accurate. His discussion of the difference between secularism and secularity should be required reading for our fretful bishops. If I could recommend one sentence in the entire book it would be this: "The challenge, both political and ecclesial, in the present emergency is to rebuild a sense of unity that marginalizes the extremes and treats the sectarian instinct as the epitome of non-Catholic spirit." It is terrifying to recognize the truth of Faggioli's insistence that the polarization too many Catholics, including many bishops, helped bring to birth has become an addiction.”


Again Michael Sean Winters helps us to understand the difficulties especially; one of omission more than mistake, is Faggioli's failure to recognize the critical significance of Catholic migration to the suburbs in the postwar era as the sine qua non for all the other ecclesial and political changes he describes. He is right that Vatican II, and especially its teaching on religious liberty, helped Catholics enter the mainstream of political life, even though Kennedy was elected before Vatican II had even begun. And he is right that it was the reaction to the post-conciliar landscape that saw the birth of modern conservative Catholicism, even if certain preconciliar precursors, like the prudishness of the Legion of Decency, provided fertile soil for later iterations of pelvic theology. But the loss of a specifically Catholic identity, and the related and consequent diminishment of any claims Catholic social teaching might have on Catholic voters, began when Catholics became affluent and moved to the suburbs, where your identity had more to do with the car you drove than with the prayers you recited.”

“These difficulties are minor when compared to the accomplishment of the text as a whole. It is not just that Faggioli, like Alexis de Tocqueville before him, brings a foreign-born eye to his task, permitting him to see things we natives miss. Nor is it that Faggioli has immersed himself in profoundly complicated sociocultural terrain and mastered it. Nor is that Faggioli is, simply put, the outstanding U.S. ecclesiologist of our time, although he is.


What is most refreshing about this book is that it contains theology. He draws distinctions and makes arguments and presents evidence. He does not make assertions that are unproven. At a time when many theologians confuse pushing the envelope in ways that will get them published with being prophetic, Faggioli understands that one of the more central issues at stake in the fight with fascism and proto-fascism is precisely the demand that evidence and arguments be required, not rants appropriate for an activist but misplaced when coming from an academic.”


Faggioli writes for the reader. He wants to convince the reader of the situation of the church in the United States. It is an engaging book and needs the attention of a person willing to do the hard work of transforming our Church and our society. “Read it with pen in hand. Dog ear its pages. Keep it close at hand”. It is our hope for movement forward.