Kristy Nabhan-Warren is professor and V.O. and Elizabeth Kahl Figge Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Iowa. Her research focuses on U.S. Latina/x/o Catholics in the United States, and her publications include The Virgin of El Barrio: Marian Apparitions, Catholic Evangelizing, and Mexican-American Activism (2005); Cursillos in America: Catholics, Protestants, and Fourth-Day Spirituality (2013); and Américan Woman: The Virgin of Guadalupe, Latinos/as and Accompaniment (2018).
After four years of Trump, our nation is bruised and battered. It has become the new norm to reward politicians who champion cage-fighting styles of domination over those who disagree, while mocking those who call for civil discourse. President Joe Biden was elected to lead us out of the morass of cynicism that threatens to further erode the tenuous unum, the oneness, of our nation. We desperately need leadership that values working out our many challenges in a collaborative and civil manner.
President Biden—a devoted, practicing Catholic who came of age during the sweeping reforms of the Second Vatican Council—has the opportunity to challenge the dominant trope that posits U.S. Catholicism as exclusively conservative, Republican, and pro-life of a particular stripe. Biden’s lived Catholicism of practice and exercising his conscience is a Catholicism we have not seen on the public stage in recent years. It is a Catholicism of the early 1960s, introduced by Pope John XXIII and reinvigorated by Pope Francis. Biden’s Catholicism is a Catholicism of and for the people.
The president’s experience coming of age pre- and post-Vatican II has prepared him to pave a middle way in American politics and society at large, one that emphasizes duty and honor, empathy and understanding, as well as dialogue and relaxing of top-down hierarchical models of authority. Today, the Catholic Church in the United States, much like American society at large, can appear to be irreconcilably divided and siloed. Republican verses Democrat, pro-life verses pro-choice…the list of binaries and battles goes on. What we read in the media tells us that we are a nation divided—and indeed, we are on many fronts. In November 2019, a South Carolina priest denied Biden the Eucharist, while more recently the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its elected spokesman, Archbishop José Horacio Gómez, criticized President Biden for his support of women’s rights to have access to birth control and abortion.
The president’s experience coming of age pre- and post-Vatican II has prepared him to pave a middle way in American politics and society at large.
Yet what the most vocal members of the current U.S. Church hierarchy say matters most, and what those who identify with the faith identify as most meaningful to them, does not always match up. For example, according to a Pew Research Center report, the majority of U.S. Catholics, as with the majority of Americans, support unfettered access to birth control and support abortion in most cases. President Joe Biden’s Catholicism—which emphasizes personal piety, love for one’s neighbor, and respect for the dignity of all humans—seems to be in line with what the majority of U.S. Catholics want. Biden’s Catholicism represents a Catholicism of everyday laypeople who are doing their very best to live good and moral lives in the midst of life’s challenges and curveballs.
Yet over the past decade, the U.S. Catholic Church hierarchy, as with other hierarchical institutions, has doubled down on its pronouncements of power. It has aligned itself with other vocally conservative Christian leaders while activating itself in the political arena. Moral complexities have become flattened and rendered simplistic, and religious discourse has centered on who does not belong under the tent of the Catholic Church. Indeed, under Pope Benedict’s tenure (2005–2013), the tent of Catholicism became much smaller and less inclusive. Benedict institutionalized the unborn; cis-gendered heterosexual couples; and whiteness as the most visible and theologically curated signposts valued by the Church. Yet this particular fetishization of family, faith, and sexuality—embraced by many in the U.S. Church hierarchy—has become out of step with the complexities of contemporary life.
Moral complexities have become flattened and rendered simplistic, and religious discourse has centered on who does not belong under the tent of the Catholic Church.
Many American Catholics and non-Catholics alike have turned to their consciences as guidance to navigate the difficulties of contemporary life, where there is much grey area and complexity. Indeed, a major point of emphasis in the 1960s Vatican II reforms was a pivot from Church authority to the individual’s conscience, emphasizing that laypersons and clergy were part of a shared church. As the scholar of American Catholicism Pete Cajka writes in his excellent new book, Follow Your Conscience: The Catholic Church and the Spirit of the Sixties, U.S. Catholic Church reforms called upon Catholics to look deeply within themselves, to look to their God and their families, and to form their own decisions—much like non-Catholic Americans at the time were doing.
President Biden has been vilified by the USCCB for his support of women’s right to choose and for LGBTQI+ inclusion, while at the same time praised for his support of immigrants and refugees. Biden is following his conscience in his efforts to respect all life and to weigh the moral complexities of all of the entangled issues in the moment. Biden has the opportunity to help heal the divisions in broader American society and politics, as well as American Catholic culture, which is a microcosm of the United States. He can draw from his own deeply informed Catholic conscience, which understands the complexities and nuances of the pressing issues facing our nation, and he can call for dialogue, reconciliation, and action.
Biden is following his conscience in his efforts to respect all life and to weigh the moral complexities of all of the entangled issues in the moment.
As a scholar of religion in the United States who has spent the past 29 years working closely with American Catholics for my research, what I see on the ground gives me hope for a Catholicism and an America that understands moral complexities and that works to understand differences. This hope is based on the local and grassroots efforts I have witnessed occurring all around us—Catholic, interfaith, and secular efforts alike—to show empathy and love for our neighbors and to show accompaniment and hospitality. While there are Church leaders who encourage devotion to a pre-Vatican II American Church of deference and top-down authority, there are leaders in the Church who see themselves as part of a community that emphasizes hospitality and works of mercy. I have seen their pro-people, lived Catholicism in action.
My friends Bishop Thomas Zinkula of the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, and Father Joseph Sia, for example, are out in the community doing works of mercy. Bishop Z., as he likes to be called, is a frequent guest of the Iowa City Worker House, has accompanied migrants to their immigration check-ins, and has written eloquently on the importance of supporting migrants and migration reform. It was Father Joseph who told me that I needed to go tour a meatpacking plant to see what his parishioners were telling me during our interviews. A few weeks later, Father Joseph and I were touring a Tyson hog processing plant together, and I saw first-hand how his support for his parishioners extends outside of the parish into their work and everyday lives. For Father Joseph, living a life of faith demands active accompaniment and support of his parishioners. Father Joseph has worked for years with an inclusive, interfaith alliance in Eastern Iowa which supports Latino/a Catholics and other immigrants and refugees.
President Biden can be a harbinger of a new conversation in American politics that is informed by a 'big tent Catholicism.'
I am not sure if the ongoing pro-life and pro-choice debate will ever be reconciled, but what I do hope to see is the US. Catholic Church shift its focus toward a renewed conversation on the national level that encourages empathy and compassion for those with whom we disagree, and love and kindness toward each other. I believe that President Biden can be a harbinger of a new conversation in American politics that is informed by a “big tent Catholicism,” as my friend and colleague Julie Byrne puts it. A big tent Catholicism understands that not all Catholics or Americans will ever agree, but it works in the hope we can all agree that showing compassion, understanding, and radical empathy for each other is the best that we can do on this earth.
One lesson from my ethnographic work with Latino/a Catholics is that when we follow on our inner moral compass and conscience, we can understand that there is such a thing as the common good, dignity of the human person, and preferential option for the poor. These to-dos also just so happen to be core components of Catholic social thought, and what I see President Biden working to enact in a broadband way in American politics and society.