Biden era signals a liberal Catholic moment and more tension with U.S. church leaders

While the election of Joe Biden as U.S. president seems to be ushering in a new era of liberal Catholic (and, in general, liberal religious) influence, by closely aligning themselves with the Democratic administration, liberal Catholic activists and leaders run the risk of being perceived to be as partisan as evangelicals were under the Trump presidency, according to Ross Douthat in the New York Times (January 24). Douthat writes that recent presidential administrations have been marked by differing religious cultures—from the evangelical-conservative Catholic alliance of the Bush presidency to Obama’s mix of mainline Protestant and black church influence (along with a secular “woke progressivism” during his latter term), to the prosperity gospel and Christian nationalist thrust of the Trump era. The Catholic cast of Biden’s Inauguration Day ceremonies was evident in the Jesuit invocation, his quote from St. Augustine, and the ethnic Catholic representation in other speakers and celebrants. By “liberal Catholicism” Douthat is referring not so much to theology but to a cultural strand of the church devoted to the Vatican II teachings, the papacy of Francis, and Catholic social teachings on issues such as war and peace and the economy.

He adds that there is little doubt that many figures in Pope Francis’s inner circle have largely welcomed the Biden presidency. When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a strong critique of Biden’s position on abortion, “there was apparent pushback from the Vatican and explicit pushback from the most Francis-aligned of the American cardinals.” But Douthat, a conservative Catholic, ventures that liberal Catholicism can plausibly “claim the religious center…[and] fill the Mainline’s vanished role” since it does have an institutional presence (in contrast to American religious individualism), a multiethnic character, and a “fervent inclusivity.” Yet, such Catholic liberalism faces the danger of being subsumed into political liberalism or taken over from within by progressive orthodoxies that could set Biden’s agenda on current social questions. There also remains a disjuncture between this liberal Catholic culture and the American church leadership. In Commonweal magazine (January 28), liberal Catholic theologian Massimo Faggioli writes that the U.S. bishops’ rebuke to Biden represents an estrangement of American Catholic leadership from both the new administration and the Vatican, as well as a significant segment of Catholics. While a few prominent bishops, such as Chicago’s Blasé Cupich, criticized the statement, most church leaders will not dissent publicly, Faggioli writes. Even though the day after the inauguration the USCCB praised Biden’s rejoining the Paris Agreement, reinstating DACA protections, and reversing Trump’s Muslim ban, he argues that the “wrong note” had been struck, signaling strained church-state relations in the years ahead.


Source: Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.