The election of the nation’s second Catholic president excited a brief media frisson in January. All the more because Joseph R. Biden Jr. recruited seven Catholics to his cabinet, this author was caught tweeting that “There never has been a more Catholic administration in U.S. history.” Mr. Biden himself, by his own quiet example, affirms this every day in the way that he talks about politics and the nation. I doubt he could cite the text, but often I think of how deeply Joe Biden seems to have absorbed the teaching of “Gaudium et Spes,” No. 40:
[T]he Church does not only communicate divine life to the human family but in some way casts the reflected light of that life over the entire earth, most of all by its healing and elevating impact on the dignity of the person, by the way in which it strengthens the seams of human society and imbues the everyday activity of persons with a deeper meaning and importance. Thus through her individual matters and her whole community, the Church believes she can contribute greatly toward making the human family and its history more human.
Mr. Biden personifies his generation of Catholics’ understanding of Catholicism as deeply, inextricably entwined with the life of the whole human family, a church that elevates and ennobles every human life simply by being present as a light for the whole world.
The decades since the 1980s have brought a slow withering of the church’s optimism that has seen it settle into a more confrontational relationship to the modern world. Culture wars have signified an era during which Mr. Biden (counterculturally among American Catholics) retained his optimism and his cheerful, public Catholic faith.
When we think of the Biden era now just getting underway in this context, a question presents itself. For all the authenticity and beauty of Mr. Biden’s faith, abortion politics leaves many Catholics in our deeply divided church far from convinced that he is sincere. Moreover, at 78 years of age, Mr. Biden is a man from another time. The world toward which the council turned the church is different. So is the church.
With the Catholic Church now besieged by scandal, financial collapse and an extraordinary exodus of the faithful hastened by the Covid-19 pandemic, there are good reasons to be worried that the bold experimental spirit of Vatican II, its hope for a church engaged with the world, is at its end in these Biden years. Many Catholics could be tempted to indulge hopes that the Biden administration could be a new beginning for the council’s spirit of engagement with the world if Mr. Biden can excite Americans about Catholicism—while at the same time exciting Catholics about the goodness of our political obligations.
It just as easily could be the last hurrah.
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Steven P. Millies is associate professor of public theology and director of The Bernardin Centre at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His most recent book is Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road From Roe to Trump.
With thanks to America Magazine and Steven P. Millies, where this article originally appeared.