Which church does the president visit

Joe Biden, the Pope and the looming schism in the USA

Joe Biden attended Catholic mass on Wednesday morning. At noon when he assumed the presidency in front of the Capitol, a Jesuit swore to the assistance of God. In his first speech, the 78-year-old prayed for the more than 400,000 corona deaths in the USA. And when the cameras recorded Biden at his desk in the White House later that day, one could see this one in the background on the windowsill among many photos: Biden with Pope Francis.

The 46th President of the United States is a Catholic. Second Catholic in office after John F. Kennedy (1917-1963). The Catholic Church is today - unlike a few decades ago - the largest single religious community in the USA.

"When Joe Biden was born and baptized, the Catholic Church was still on the fringes of the American mainstream. But between the 1940s and 1960s it quickly became mainstream," church historian Massimo Faggioli told Deutsche Welle. "Biden is a traditional Catholic, but not a traditionalist. He was shaped as a Catholic by Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) and the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)."

"Culture war"

Faggioli, 50, was born in Italy and has been teaching in the United States for many years. On the day Biden took office, his book "Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States" was published in the United States and Italy. The book is not a scientific work, but it is written scientifically with references to sources. And it is a downright gripping analysis of the religious situation in the US and the mood in US Catholicism. Faggioli sees parts of the Catholic Church in the oldest democracy in the world slide into fundamentalism - and a number of US bishops on the offensive against Pope Francis. And he speaks of an incipient "schism", a "culture war" against modernity.

"A traditional Catholic, but not a traditionalist": US President Biden visits church before his inauguration

Faggioli compares Biden's start with Kennedy's start in 1960, who, as a descendant of Irish Catholics, was partially attacked. "With the first Catholic president, his religious identity was a problem for important parts of the Protestant establishment in the country. Now, with the second, the country has no problem with his being Catholic - but a not insignificant part of the American Church - including bishops - has a problem with his Catholicism, "he writes. For them, the Catholic Biden, who has advocated same-sex partnerships in recent years and who does not rail vehemently against abortions, is too moderate.


Today, traditionalist and neo-fundamentalist Catholics rely on a critical view of the council, which until 1965 recognized, among other things, religious freedom and emphasized human rights. The scientist sees a fundamentalization behind these currents, which on the other side had already shaped the evangelical currents in the USA and thus ultimately contributed to the rise of Donald Trump.

On the Catholic side, Popes John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI. (2005-2013) ensured that the conservative US Catholics developed into a tendency towards a traditionalist current that was oriented towards the republican party through strictly conservative bishop appointments. A version of Catholicism is now emerging, "which is no longer simply conservative or post-liberal, but is openly anti-liberal and illiberal". Faggioli speaks of a "tea party Catholicism" whose followers were drawn to Trump.

According to church historian Massimo Faggioli, Joe Biden represents a belief with "pop-cultural undertones"

In contrast, Biden is "far removed from the new Catholic ghettos of the 21st century" and embodies an ecumenical Catholicism. "It's a non-intellectual, but not anti-intellectual Catholicism. It's a popular belief with pop-cultural undertones."

"Attempted coup against Francis"

The distance or open rejection of the current Pope fits in with the reactionary stance of many US bishops. And it is remarkable how Faggioli relates the fates of Francis and Biden to one another over many pages. The media and experts around the world were shocked when, in the summer of 2018, the former nuncio in the USA, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, published a paper with a massive attack on the curia, accusing it of corruption and homosexual entanglements and calling on Pope Francis to resign.

The allegations were later refuted. But "these allegations were received with sympathy by a small but vocal sector of the American Church," writes Faggioli. According to Faggioli, two dozen US bishops publicly supported the "attempted coup against the Pope", which was sold "as a moral crusade against homosexuality in the clergy". "None of these bishops has ever apologized or withdrawn this support ... It is no coincidence that it is the same bishops who are trying to delegitimize Biden's Catholicism."

Seeks dialogue in the Islamic world: Pope Francis, here during a visit to Morocco at the end of March 2019

Faggioli places the impending decline and split of the US Church into a global reorientation of the Catholic Church under the current Pope. "As the US continues to define the West, Francis realizes that the 21st century papacy is no longer the head of a church that is identified with the West." For example, he is looking for dialogues with China or Islamic countries that are completely opposed to Washington’s course.

The author's work on the book ended around the turn of the year. He describes the egg dance of the US bishops, after the election of Biden in November, recognizing the decision to congratulate him on distancing himself from Trump. The Pope in Rome reacted and congratulated much faster. It was fascinating how frightening it was to see this observation confirmed on the day of taking office. Francis congratulated Biden in a long and very warm letter from Rome. The US Bishops' Conference sent a greeting with congratulations, warnings and demands - and then publicly argued about it.

Biden and Ocasio-Cortez

For Faggioli, the struggle that is going on and that shapes all parts of US society, not just the Catholic Church, may bring the end of the American dream. A departure from the fundamental openness of Christianity in the USA to different political directions could mean "the beginning of the end of the entire American experiment", which includes the opposition of politics and religion and the affirmation of democracy.

Young, progressive - and Catholic: the democrat Alexandria Ociasio-Cortez

And Biden, the Catholic, the Democrat? Faggioli points to an essential factor in the strengthening of democracy in recent decades. The Catholic Church in the USA has so far consisted of very different ethnic, social and national milieus. And he mentions - as an example - a single name from the much younger scene. "If there is anyone who represents the future of US Catholicism more accurately, it is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic MP in the House of Representatives." Faggioli recalls a quote from the progressive politician from January 2020: "In any other country Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America we are."