What’s Being Catholic Got to Do With It? President Joe Biden and the Vatican

By: Paul Manuel

March 11, 2021

Responding to: Joe Biden and Catholicism in U.S. Politics

What’s Being Catholic Got to Do With It? President Joe Biden and the Vatican

With the election of Joe Biden as only the second Roman Catholic U.S. president, many have wondered whether the United States and the Vatican are now more likely to pursue a common policy agenda.

Let us briefly consider the question.

First, the relationship between Catholic politicians and American voters has never been easy.

In the face of virulent anti-Catholicism that threatened his presidential campaign, then-Senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts stated to a group of Protestant ministers at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president [but the candidate] who happens also to be a Catholic.”

To succeed in national politics, Kennedy reasoned that his only chance to overcome the anti-Catholic sentiment among the electorate was to clearly separate his personal confession from his policy views. His decision to create a Jeffersonian-style “wall of separation” between the teachings of his church and his public duties as president started a new path for Catholic politicians in the United States. 

There was much interest in JFK’s visit to the Vatican on July 2, 1963, as the first Irish-Catholic U.S. president. Kennedy shook hands with Pope Paul VI instead of offering the traditional greeting of kissing the pope’s ring. It was understood that no American president could ever bow down to a foreign leader, especially a Catholic American president meeting with the Bishop of Rome. 

It was understood that no American president could ever bow down to a foreign leader, especially a Catholic American president meeting with the Bishop of Rome.

Twenty-four years after Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Houston Ministerial Conference, Mario Cuomo, then-governor of New York State, carved out a similar policy space for Catholic politicians. In an influential 1984 address at the University of Notre Dame, entitled “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor's Perspective,” Cuomo suggested that Catholic politicians, as well as those from other faith traditions, should never impose the teaching of their faith onto the law of the land.

Fast forward to 2020. Americans elected their second Irish-Catholic president, who now faces the difficult task of trying to balance the teachings of his church with the demands of leadership in a secular republic. Biden clearly loves his church, and his faith seems to be deep, genuine, and a source of great spiritual consolation to him. Catholic teachings may even influence some of his policy views—but certainly not all. Like President Kennedy, Biden will also try to keep his personal religious beliefs away from his presidential decision-making process. Like Cuomo, he will compartmentalize moral teachings as something separate from policy decisions.

Second, the relationship between the United States and the Vatican has never been easy. 

Although consular relations started in the early days of the American republic, and there was an effort to establish formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican in the mid-nineteenth century, these initiatives essentially went nowhere, partly due to the strong influence of the anti-Catholic “Know-Nothings.”

At the start of World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent Myron C. Taylor, a New York businessman, to be his personal envoy to Pope Pius XII in Rome. He did this, as he wrote to the pope in 1939, “in order that our parallel endeavors for peace and the alleviation of suffering might be assisted.” With the pope’s approval, Taylor launched the “American Relief for Italy” program, which provided basic necessities to those hurt by the war. Many American Protestant leaders opposed this special presidential appointment on the grounds that no formal governmental relationship should ever be established with the Catholic Church, at any level.

Formal diplomatic relations between Washington and the Vatican were not established until 1984, when President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II exchanged ambassadors. Reagan managed to get this nomination through the Senate over the objections of Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina). The Southern Baptist Convention had also passed a resolution opposing diplomatic ties with the Holy See.

The improvement in the relationship between the United States and the Vatican over the last 60 years has been remarkable.

The improvement in the relationship between the United States and the Vatican over the last 60 years has been remarkable. Every American president since Eisenhower has met with the sitting pope. In 2004, President Bush presented Pope John Paul II with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the Vatican. The following year, an American delegation that included President George H. W. Bush, President Clinton, President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travelled to Vatican City to attend the pope’s funeral at St. Peter’s Basilica. This was an extraordinary act of respect by American presidents to the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

In 2014, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), with the support of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California), both of whom are Catholic, invited Pope Francis to speak to both houses of Congress. He gladly accepted the invitation and became the first pope to ever address a joint session of Congress the following year. Francis was warmly welcomed to Washington by Catholics and Protestants, Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives alike. It was a unique and moving moment and a sign that things had significantly improved between Washington and the Vatican. 

Third, the Biden administration will probably work in concert with the Holy See—but only where they can.

FDR’s phrase “parallel endeavors for peace and the alleviation of suffering” may be a good way to think about how the Biden administration will seek to work with Pope Francis.

During his 2015 address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis sought to dialogue about the common good with Americans around the idea of unity over conflict, which is a defining theme of his papacy. Of note, he commended the significant contribution to the common good by four noteworthy American personages: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Francis lifted up the four as examples of how moral voices can ennoble politics. The pope also presented his policy views on immigration, the death penalty, the arms trade, the importance of the environment, and the “richness and beauty” of family life.

Any shared policy initiatives between Washington and the Vatican during the Biden presidency will likely be driven more by shared concerns rather than by the fact that the American president happens to be Catholic.

Without a doubt, there is much agreement between Pope Francis and President Biden on many of these issues, but certainly not on all. The issues of climate change and the ending of the death penalty are clear areas where they agree; abortion and marriage are two significant areas of disagreement. President Biden has made clear that he will pursue his own policy objectives even when Pope Francis objects.

Any shared policy initiatives between Washington and the Vatican during the Biden presidency will likely be driven more by shared concerns rather than by the fact that the American president happens to be Catholic.

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