Catholics are self-appointed experts at pointing out who has been bad and who has been good. In many respects, Americans know that Biden is a “good” Catholic. He goes to Mass. He belts out that Catholic anthem “On Eagles’ Wings.” He quotes St. Paul with ease. He has endured unspeakable personal suffering. He invokes St. Francis of Assisi and Nazi-resister Jesuit Adolph Delph. He takes the train home. He is kind to his neighbors. He is a good dad, a good grandfather. Biden speaks of “unity” and “healing divisions” and “building back better” for “every American.” Biden, the nation’s second Catholic president, will sprinkle phrases like these throughout his upcoming inauguration address. Certainly, he did not see his faith reflected in the aggressive Christian Nationalism that permeated the attacks on the Capitol Building on January 6. As the theologian Massimo Faggioli writes in his new book Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, Biden expresses “a theology of vulnerability and resilience in the face of adversity” that “makes him culturally compatible with many Americans.”
Biden is a good Catholic in the sense that he recognizes and plays by the rules of a specific game. The rules of this game stipulate that the Church play an advisory role in American politics. It can direct and cultivate the internal spiritual lives of individual politicians like Joe Biden. This good Catholicism can call upon religion to build a common good. Within this line of thinking, good Catholics prudently limit the role the Catholic Church plays in public affairs. John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first Catholic president, expressed this political approach in his famous speech to the Houston Ministerial Association in 1960. He assured the audience of preachers that while Catholicism influenced his own individual moral world, he would not allow the Church or the pope to dictate his political decisions. This mode of Catholic formation rears good individual people and only goes so far as to manage the political status quo.
A collection of liberal Catholic intellectuals and politicians having been honing this type of goodness since the early years of the American republic. This call to be a “good Catholic” polices a boundary these liberals suggest modern Catholics ought not to cross. This position, much to its credit, is highly realistic. Its origins can be traced back to the eighteenth-century efforts of John Carroll, the Jesuit archbishop of Baltimore, to forge a synthesis between Catholicism and the American Enlightenment. It can be seen in “Americanism,” a movement launched by enterprising American priests and bishops after the Civil War to convince the Church to champion toleration, pluralism, and the separation of church and state. The Church is not the only game in town, and it has to make concessions. In the 1950s and 1960, Jesuit political philosopher John Courtney Murray encouraged fellow Catholics to maintain order in their own house while accepting fellow Americans, Protestant and secular and Jewish, as they came. This philosophy has echoed in the speeches of American politicians. In a 1984 address at Notre Dame, Governor of New York Mario Cuomo urged individual Americans to make the choice to be virtuous but said, in so many words, that he could not impose his definition of virtue on his fellow citizens.
Biden repeated this version of the good—the virtuous Catholic self who accepts the messiness of a free society—at the 2012 vice presidential debate, when he was asked about abortion. Biden expressed how he “accepted the judgment of the church” in his “personal life” but refused to “impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews.” That turn of phrase, a “refusal to impose,” encapsulates the desires shared by Carroll, the Americanists, and Cuomo. Good Catholics have a way of stepping back. On occasion Pope Francis promotes this version of the good. In 2013, when asked about gay rights during an in-flight press conference, Pope Francis quipped, “Who am I to judge?”
These modern Catholics affirmed the good by disciplining the villains who, in their view, crossed into the territory of the bad. Biden’s refusal to force his views on others sets up as bad the Catholics who seek to sacralize (i.e., make Catholic) modern politics; these bad Catholics rush past the straining net between church and state to make Catholic teachings a set of rules for all Americans. They become so inflamed as to court punishment from religious authorities. American Catholic history provides some famous, and dramatic examples. The Vatican silenced anti-Semitic radio priest Charles Coughlin in the 1940s, and religious authorities excommunicated Father Leonard “No Salvation Outside of the Church” Feeney in 1952. “Good” Catholics, in contrast to these two priests, engage in a type of politic of respectability. Catholics like Coughlin and Feeney are brutally honest about some of the Church’s difficult teachings regarding other faiths and the nature of salvation. These bad Catholics see no reason not to make Catholic truth a reality. According to them, these truths are universal and should be made universal by the political system. A good Catholic like Biden, then, might believe in some of the Church’s intense doctrines, but this good modern Catholic maintains the discipline to distance Catholicism from actual policy decisions while letting the Church influence his individual behavior and allowing the Church to form his internal spiritual world. This boundary exercise can work against liberals too: Pope John Paul II demanded Jesuit Robert Drinan, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War who served five terms in the House of Representatives from 1971 to 1981, not seek a sixth. Drinan, who tapped the Church’s centuries-old just war theory to critique the Vietnam War, complied. Good Catholics accept a particular boundary between church and state that only lets certain Catholic commitments pass.
Catholics, in a sense, cannot win at this game. Catholics like Feeney or Drinan are such good Catholics (they take the Church’s teachings to logical conclusions and take the Church’s moral witness very seriously) that they break bad. Their religious passions bring them to abandon the poise required to keep uncompromising Catholic positions at bay from public affairs. Catholics like Biden and Father Murray are such good Catholics (they accept the modern values of pluralism, and they apply widely the Church’s notion of human dignity) that they too break bad in the sense they dilute the Church’s teaching or render uncompromising Church doctrines anemic in the public sphere. For some American Catholics, especially single-issue voters on abortion, Biden is actually a bad Catholic. For the American Catholics who still believe Trump won the election, Biden is actually a bad Catholic. He is a bad Catholic for the very same reasons he is a good Catholic. He is both good and bad because he refuses to use the political system to uphold and enforce a natural law that declares abortion gravely wrong, sinful, and even criminal. He does not impose.
But good Catholics like Biden have to find a way to use Catholicism to point out the bad. He has to become such a good Catholic that he too breaks bad, but in a specific way. Good religion right now will mean cultivating the virtue of making enemies. He will need to make enemies of the super-rich, the deregulators of environmental protections, resurgent American nativists, the Catholic conspiracy theorists, and those who say Black lives still do not matter. A good Catholic wags his or her finger on occasion. In fact, a good twenty-first-century Catholic might revive the old practice of declaring anathema those practices that cripple the common good. Good Catholics might issue a new “Syllabus of Errors.” The original Syllabus, issued in 1864 by Pope Pius IX, catalogued mistakes made by moderns like religious freedom, democracy, socialism, and the separation of church and state. A new Syllabus might decry inequality, trapping children in cages, police brutality, a new bloodthirst for federal executions, and violations of dignity resulting from abortion, harsh immigration policies, and the Trump Administration’s weak response to COVID-19. Good Catholics—good in the sense they accept modern religious pluralism—should be eager to condemn the bad. All of Pope Francis’s encyclicals pass judgments on those who destroy fraternity, turn away immigrants, amass towering silos of wealth, and run rampant over the earth. Biden might draw strength from “saints” throughout American political history: Franklin Roosevelt and Huey Long were not Catholic, but they were good in the sense that they spoke frankly about the evils of economic plutocracy. Biden might see some of the good today in the words of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ Green New Deal or Bernie Sanders’ call for nationalized health care.
I hope Biden is a good Catholic. Biden is clearly an establishment pick for the presidency. He’s been in Washington for nearly five decades, serving as a senator and a vice president, and he has already attempted several failed presidential runs. He has a reputation as a skilled negotiator who can work both sides of the aisle. His Catholic upbringing has played a role in his desires to help people get along. Catholicism has helped to make Biden resilient, compassionate, and accepting. But does being good not mean something more right now?
To be a good Catholic requires renouncing one’s own complicity with the bad. While Biden is personally good, can he also turn to a political good? To be good is not a Bible verse quoted, a hymn sung, or a saint’s life invoked—though all of those seriously help with the lifelong task of spiritual formation. To be a good Catholic in politics is to actively reject injustice. Biden will need to renounce his party’s deep complicity in the construction of America’s racially based prison-industrial complex to be a good Catholic. As the historian Elizabeth Hinton has shown, the rise of mass incarceration began in the mid-1960s when Lyndon Johnson promoted a war on crime alongside his war on poverty. Hinton suggests that “crime control may have been the domestic issue in the late twentieth century where conservative and liberal interests most thoroughly intertwined.” She notes how Biden supported Reagan’s “War on Drugs” by drafting key pieces of legislation in 1984. An individual can be good but can also easily become a cog in a much larger machine of structural sin. Good white Catholics are embedded in several political and economic systems that reward them simply for being white. Can good white Catholic liberals build a state that shows more mercy and more attention to the human person? We can read St. Paul’s letters and we can speak about heroic saints but we would all do well to read Responsibility and Rehabilitation, a document put out by the U.S. Catholic Bishops in 2000 in which the prelates condemn mandatory sentencing and denounce the state’s laziness in refusing to fit punishments to the crimes. A good Catholic must awaken to the good and pursue it.
Good and bad are intertwined in Catholic persons, and we ought to resist the temptation to see anyone—especially ourselves—as purely good. Can we accept that good can come from those who behave badly? It happens all the time in American Catholicism. Biden is, as discussed above, a good man. But the sexual politics of the late twentieth century, a cocktail of women’s liberation and the rise of legal protections against sexual harassment are also part of Biden’s legacy. Biden is a firm advocate of women’s equality, but he angered many women with his treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991, and he did not personally apologize to Hill until 2019. Biden has also been accused by women of inappropriate touching, unwanted hugging, kissing heads, and standing uncomfortably close. Good Catholics like Joe Biden can be bad. Dorothy Day, a good candidate for sainthood, had an abortion before her conversion. She was a notoriously cold parent to her daughter Tamar even as she tended to the needs of the poor, offering the impoverished dignity through the creation of communal bonds. Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, a global network of institutions that serve men and women with physical and intellectual disabilities, has been accused of carrying on sexually exploitative relationships with six non-disabled women. The good and the bad meet in individual Catholic persons like Joe Biden, as they do in Dorothy Day and Jean Vanier. To be good means seeing the bad. Too much focus on the structural sins of men and women can obscure the darkness in the self. It seems so hard to be good.
Biden’s election is not a moment to celebrate the arrival of a second Catholic president but a moment to reflect on a stunning paradox in American politics. Why have so many “good” Catholics gained power in Washington (Amy Coney Barrett, John Roberts, Biden, Pelosi, 23 senators) but, left or right, failed to build a “good” world? Catholics long before Biden were forced to pursue religious callings as individuals and communities rather than as political bodies. Perhaps it is a philosophical impossibility to be individually good and politically good in modern politics. Reinhold Niebuhr taught us that as the scale of a political community expands, a moral man will start to tolerate immoral practices. One can be good to those who are close (family, children, grandchildren) and completely indifferent to those who are distant (enemies of the state, criminals, factory workers). With the election of Joe Biden to the presidency, American Catholics must make a decision about who they are. Catholics have arrived at a fork in the road. Catholics can continue to accept the argument that they have to properly balance between faith and political reality. They can continue to choose to be “good Catholics” in an unjust world. Or, they can resist the notion that is satisfactory to be good individuals, and they can begin to use the Catholic faith’s most challenging provocations about economic and social justice, along with the sanctity of life, to build a better world.
In the act of breaking good we can see hope. We can hope that the good Catholic Joe Biden will mark a significant symbolic break from Donald Trump and the prevailing political and economic systems. We can be pessimistic in anticipating that being “good” entails something less than the realization of just world.
Peter Cajka is the author of Follow Your Conscience: The Catholic Church and the Spirit of the Sixties. He is an assistant teaching professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame.