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President Biden's Catholicism could encourage expanded conversations on polarizing issues

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
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Joe Biden is only the second catholic in US history to be sworn in as the president.

John F. Kennedy came first, in 1961.

We spoke to local leaders in the Catholic church and a historian about what this means for Catholicism in America now.

Comparing with Kennedy

While President Biden and John F. Kennedy share the same faith, Notre Dame history professor Kathleen Sprows Cummings says the way they show it is drastically different.

"JFK downplayed his Catholic affiliation," said Cummings. "For Biden it is something very visible that he will celebrate."

Kennedy went to mass privately on Inauguration day.

The Bidens welcomed cameras and colleagues to worship and pray with them, even if they weren’t catholic themselves.

Cummings says Kennedy was a "lukewarm" Catholic who tried to distance himself from the religion, never quoting the Pope. She thinks President Biden is comfortable talking about saints and quoting Pope Francis, in part because the Pope now is a generally more popular figure.

Kennedy's election was significant because many Americans at the time thought Catholics couldn't fully lead a democracy because of their faith. Now, the conversation is flipped.

"It’s a much different world now where nobody questions Catholics' capacity to be good Americans. What is interesting is the way they question Biden's ability to be a good Catholic," Cummings said.

President Biden has received criticism from other Catholics, the most common about his support of upholding Roe vs Wade. Kennedy's inauguration she says was a point of pride for bishops across the nation.

"When Kennedy was elected, that fault lines were between Catholics and other Americans, but now the major divisions are between Catholics themselves. "

Local Catholic reaction

Local catholic leaders say the church recognizes the historical significance of this moment, but their reaction is mixed.

"There was a lot of prayer during the inauguration, that was nice," said Rev. Mark Gurtner, the vicar general for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

Rev. Gurtner says the president is a good witness of his faith through these public prayers, and the church applauds President Biden’s stances on immigration, the death penalty and eliminating racism.

"On the other hand there is a number of values and policy decisions that really go against our faith in terms of the promotion of abortion and the area of marriage and gender rights," Rev. Gurtner said.

The church took issue with parts of Obamacare that required Catholic employers to pay for contraception as part of employees' health plans.

"We are worried that during the Biden administration those kinds of things would come back, trying to force the church to do things and pay for things that we believe are wrong," Rev. Gurtner said.

Expanding the pro-life conversation

Cummings says the legal abortion debate is mainly divided between political parties, rather than faith.

"For Biden, while he has said he is personally against abortion, he cannot impose his views on all Americans and that’s part of the Democratic Party platform," said Cummings.

But she hopes that with President Biden’s Catholicism in the spotlight, it could lead to expanding the national conversation about what it means to be pro-life.

"Because of the polarization surrounding abortion, we are not able to have very constructive conversations about it."

Many people don’t realize that Pope Francis’s interpretation of pro-life doesn’t stop at unborn babies.

"He also argues that equally sacred should be the immigrant, the elderly, the refugee, how can Catholics support life very broadly?" said Cummings.

Research shows the number of abortions decreases during Democratic administrations because of the social supports that are in place.

She thinks President Biden has the opportunity to lead discussions with Catholics from both parties.

"Perhaps that could lead to sitting down and talking, people who support abortion and people who don’t, maybe could arrive at a more fruitful conversation about how to reduce abortion. Because nobody thinks abortion is a GOOD thing but they recognize that women get abortions because they feel they have no other choice," Cummings said.

She also believes the conversation about abortion can be more fruitful when people recognize their faith has several shared values--things like Catholic Social teachings are universal in the religion.

"Only God" can judge

The Church remains firm that being pro-choice makes President Biden a counter-witness to their religion--meaning it makes him a Catholic that is not living up to the full standards of being a Catholic.

"No one can judge his heart, only God can, and I believe that he is sincere in saying that he believes in the Catholic faith, but at the same time, it is hard not to see that there are things that he espouses that are completely against the Catholic faith," said Rev. Gurtner.

Rev. Gurtner says he is praying that the president's faith will influence him to do more things the Church believe are right and moral.

Cummings is a Catholic herself and says it is not their job to judge each other based on religion.

"It would be great if we could stop demonizing people and having our own opinions about what constitutes a good Catholic and a bad Catholic and think about Catholic as a very capacious definition," Cummings said. "It means being baptized and it means taking faith seriously whether you are a public servant or not."

Recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett is also a Catholic, but with extremely different views than the president.

"It would be great if prominent Catholics like president Biden, like Justice Barrett, could signal that they are open to talking to people with whom they disagree," said Cummings.

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Cummings hopes her former colleague and the president can go to church together and talk about their different philosophies on governing and law.

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