Rethinking America

Catholicism: Its Influence on President Joe Biden

There is an important distinction between the intellectual tradition and the doctrinal tradition of the Catholic Church.

Takeaways


  • What influence might Catholicism have on Biden and will his Catholicism matter to his administration’s foreign policy?
  • Catholicism may exert its influence through at least two avenues -- the Catholic intellectual tradition and the Catholic doctrinal tradition.
  • The Catholic intellectual tradition encourages people to be open to others, to think about their culture, to use new ideas for understanding new times and to listen to those outside the Church.
  • Secular concepts of foreign policy generally prioritize self-interest. Christian concepts are concerned with the good of the other.
  • In the Catholic framework familiar to Biden, leaders should make decisions not only for their own good and the good of their own people, but for the good of the rest of the world.

Joe Biden, the United States’ first Catholic vice president, will soon become the United States’ second Catholic president.

Yet, compared to the scrutiny experienced by his Catholic predecessor, John F. Kennedy, Biden’s Catholicism has gotten remarkably little attention.

What influence, if any, might Catholicism have on Biden? And will Biden’s Catholicism matter to his administration’s foreign policy?

Biden’s Catholic worldview

Joe Biden’s Catholic worldview does matter — but it will manifest itself through an unexpected channel. It won’t be the leading factor in his decision-making.

Nevertheless, Biden’s Catholic background forms part of the worldview through which he will frame options and make choices in international politics.

This assertion may seem surprising, even naïve. Although Joe Biden carries a rosary and attends Sunday Mass, his political positions contradict virtually every official Catholic teaching on personhood, life and matrimony. For example, Biden supports abortion-on-demand and same-sex marriage.

Biden’s policies vs. Catholic doctrine

In fact, after Biden’s nomination as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 2008, the Bishop of Scranton, the city of his birth, barred Joe Biden from receiving Holy Communion in that Pennsylvania diocese. Biden continued to receive Communion in Delaware, where he resides.

Given such shaky adherence to the Church’s teachings, why should anyone expect Catholicism to shape Biden’s foreign policy?

Will Biden follow JFK’s approach?

One might expect Biden to pursue the path of John F. Kennedy, his Catholic predecessor. While running for president, JFK famously declared his belief in the “absolute” separation of church and state such that “no public official either requests or accepts instruction on public policy from the pope.”

Kennedy wanted to assure the U.S. electorate that the presidency would not become “the instrument of any one religious group” when it came to making decisions about important issues.

However, there is a distinction between what a president thinks about issues and how a president thinks about them.

Catholic intellectual tradition vs. doctrinal tradition

When Pope John XXIII called for a ban on nuclear weapons in the landmark encyclical letter “Pacem in terris” (1963), President Kennedy said of the letter, “As a Catholic I am proud of it, and as an American I have learned from it.”

Kennedy’s response is not incompatible with his prior position. Rather, it points to the fact that there are at least two avenues through which Catholicism may exert influence — namely the Catholic intellectual tradition and the Catholic doctrinal tradition.

Shaping how Biden thinks, not what he thinks

The Catholic intellectual tradition instills habits that influence how Biden does his thinking.

As early Christianity spread from the Holy Land to the Greco-Roman world, the Catholic Church adopted cornerstones on which the Catholic intellectual tradition was built.

The cornerstones include the need for people to be open to those unlike themselves, to think seriously about the culture they live in, to use new ideas for understanding and communicating in new times and places and to listen to those outside the Church to hear what God might be saying through them.

Guided by Catholic intellectual tradition

Biden seems guided by his understanding of the Catholic intellectual tradition rather than the Catholic doctrinal tradition. Recognizing this influence can help us understand how Biden’s worldview differs from the expectations of conventional international political thought.

It is in this regard that Biden’s Catholicism will matter to his administration’s foreign policy.

The sacred vs. the secular in foreign policy

Catholicism’s general framework for international relations has both similarities to and differences from secular approaches. Secular concepts like selective engagement and isolationism parallel Christian concepts of just war and pacifism.

Indeed, there is cross pollination. Secularized versions of some religious concepts, notably just war thought, are common currency in some political and diplomatic discourse.

Self-interest as well as the good of the other

Nevertheless, something separates the purely secular concepts from the purely Christian ones: The former generally prioritize self-interest, while the latter are uniformly concerned with the good of the other.

In other words, in the Catholic framework familiar to Biden, leaders should make decisions not only for their own good, and for the good of their own people, but for the good of the rest of the world.

A global virtue – the common good

Catholics view sovereignty, or the authority to rule, as responsibility for the common good. The Church has expressed this view systematically since the days of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

Biden’s Catholicism will thus influence his presidency. However, Biden, like Kennedy before him, will be guided mainly by principles absorbed from the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Conclusion

Biden’s foreign policies may depart doctrinally from Catholicism, but the framework that shapes his thinking will bear the Catholic intellectual imprint of trying to be other-centered and communal rather than self-centered and individualistic.

Watch for Joe Biden to craft policies that do not handicap the United States or Americans, yet benefit foreign countries and peoples, too.

As much he can, President Biden will put the United States before, but not against, others.

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About Brian K. Muzás

Stanton nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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