Book review of Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States by Massimo Faggioli.
Massimo Faggioli’s new book Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, published by Bayard Press on the day of Biden’s inauguration, is the first book-length treatment of the new US President’s life and worldview in the context of his Catholic faith. Written in Italian as Joe Biden e il cattolicesimo negli Stati Uniti and translated into English by Barry Hudock, the book is a relatively slim 162 pages; I read it in three sittings over the course of two days. In general I would recommend Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, but it does suffer some weaknesses, many of them related to some premature conclusions about the impact of Biden’s Catholicism on his presidency (or of Biden’s presidency on Catholicism).
For the most part the book is written in a style that should be accessible to most Catholics who follow ecclesial affairs. Oddities like a persistently nonstandard use of the word “neoconservative” strike me as cases of a common problem with translations from Italian (a language heavy in portmanteaux and neologisms), rather than a problem with Faggioli’s writing.
Faggioli, a historian by training and by inclination, is at his best when discussing interwar Catholicism and the candidacy of Al Smith, the first Catholic Presidential nominee from a major party. (I laughed out loud at Faggioli’s description, on p. 23, of Smith being asked about his relationship with the papal magisterium and replying “What the hell is an encyclical?”) Faggioli vividly and sensitively describes the decisions of the three pre-Biden Catholic nominees—Smith, John F. Kennedy, and John Kerry—to deemphasize and privatize their faith in order to campaign in Protestant America. These descriptions lend weight and substance to his thesis that Biden stressing his Catholic credentials is a novelty in the history of American presidential politics.
Unfortunately, when discussing this history Faggioli leaves a few stones unturned. For example, why was the Holy See concerned that exchanging ambassadors with the US in the 1920s might lead to the rise of an American version of the far-right French Catholic movement Action Française? Faggioli doesn’t explain. There are also a few factual errors, such as the assertion on p. 54 that the four Catholic Presidential nominees all have “origins in Irish immigrant Catholicism”; in fact John Kerry’s last name is an anglicization of Kohn and he descends from Austrian Jewish converts to Catholicism. However, the chapter discussing these past candidates is still the strongest in the book and well worth reading on its own.
A section in another chapter, discussing “Pope Francis’s Geopolitical Atlas” and its conflicts with both the Trumpian and the Bidenian versions of American exceptionalism, is also worth a look for anybody interested in the Vatican’s current diplomatic positioning. Faggioli describes the Francis-era Vatican’s commitment to decentering both the US and Rome in the Church’s conception of itself. “Francis has called his view of the world ‘Magellan’s gaze,’ which invites us to look at the center from the periphery,” Faggioli tells us on p. 71. “Magellan’s gaze” is a phrase with a wonderful evocative power; I feel indebted to this book for making me aware of it.
The book is, perhaps unsurprisingly, on its least-sure footing when discussing Biden himself. At times Faggioli’s assessment of the new President is so positive as to seem almost propagandistic. Faggioli points out that Biden is “a stutterer like Moses” (p. 51) and says that his “presidency arouses not only political expectations but also religious, even salvific ones” (p. 2). As a Catholic who admires many of Biden’s qualities, even I find this view of him overinflated. In fairness, at other points in the book Faggioli admits the commonly-acknowledged problems with Biden, such as his checkered record on race relations and the ever-widening gap between his policies and Church teaching on abortion and related moral issues. Unfortunately, when discussing these subjects, Faggioli’s instinct is to deflect or relativize criticisms of Biden rather than making an affirmative case for why he is worthy of political support despite them.
The other main criticism that I have of the book is a certain inconsistency in some of the polarities that Faggioli describes. Is the American Church’s contribution to the global Church defined by the Vatican II conception of religious freedom, or by “neoconservatism and neotraditionalism”? Were Vatican II’s teachings on church and state influenced primarily by the American John Courtney Murray, or by Continental European thought against which American voices at the Council found themselves marginalized? Is the future of the American Church better represented by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or by the burgeoning youth traditionalist subculture? Depending on what page of the book one is reading, Faggioli might be arguing either or both sides of all of these questions. I think that most of these polarities can be resolved through the “Catholic both/and”—for example, American Catholicism is characterized both by reformist, conciliar perspectives on church and state and by intense conservatism on “culture war” issues. However, Faggioli doesn’t provide these resolutions himself, instead juxtaposing sometimes diametrically opposed assertions and expecting his readers to do the dialectical work themselves.
The parts of the book that are not directly about Biden are so consistently better than the parts that are that I almost suspect the book might not have been originally intended to be about Biden at all. Perhaps the sections dealing most directly with Biden were written in a very great hurry after he won the election, or revised in a similar hurry once he won. In any case, we’re left with a good book about Francis-era political Catholicism, an excellent essay about the history of Catholic Presidential nominees in the United States, and a lattice of weaker connective tissue about Joe Biden to hold it all together.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think most of the book’s unevenness can be attributed to the extremely short turnaround with which it was written and published. An apocryphal story that an old professor of mine loved to recount has Mao Zedong being asked what he thought of the French Revolution and responding that it was too soon to tell. It may or may not be too soon to tell what to make of the events of 1789, but it is definitely too soon for a book like this to tell what to make of a presidency that began on the same day that it was published. Even within the past month Biden has staked out all sorts of stances—on foreign policy, on the pandemic, on immigration, and, yes, on abortion—that will give future Catholic writers about his administration much more to discuss. Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States is an interesting first salvo in the inevitable “Biden wars” in Catholic academia, but it certainly will not be the final word.