ROME—When then-candidate John F. Kennedy gave his landmark stump speech to the Houston Ministers Conference in September 1960, he stressed that he was “not the Catholic candidate for president.” He insisted instead, “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters—and the church does not speak for me.”
Two months later, JFK was elected the first Catholic president of the United States amid fears that his presidency would be guided by the Vatican and Pope John XXIII and warnings that he might compromise the separation of church and state—none of which happened. Sixty years later, Joe Biden is the second Catholic ever to win the presidency, and this time the criticism isn't from outside the Catholic Church, but from within, with conservative American Cardinal Raymond Burke leading the charge, painting Biden as an anti-Catholic not fit to lead.
In the months leading up to the election, Burke was on a campaign of his own, stumping for the thrice-married incumbent President Trump while pleading that Biden is “not a Catholic in good standing” over his views on abortion and birth control. Burke said Biden should not receive communion at Catholic mass and should not tout his faith. “I don’t understand why Catholics who are involved in politics can’t get this straight in their heads, but they should,” Burke told the Catholic Action for Faith and Family association, for which Burke is a spiritual adviser, in an interview that was run by the popular conservative Catholic website Lifesite. “If someone says, ‘I’m a devout Catholic,’ and at the same time is promoting abortion, it gives the impression to others that it’s acceptable for Catholics to be in favor of abortion. And of course, it’s absolutely not acceptable. Never has been. Never will be.”
Biden is not Burke’s only target. He has also condemned Pope Francis for his recent remarks on extending civil rights to same-sex couples. Burke, whose office did not respond to multiple requests for comments, accused Francis last month of inciting “error and confusion with words that do not correspond to the constant teachings of the Church,” when the pope commented in a documentary that he supported legal rights for gays. “To speak of a homosexual union, in the same sense as the conjugal union of the married, is misleading, because there can be no such union.”
The pope did not respond directly to Burke’s criticism of himself or the president-elect, but he did call Biden Friday to congratulate him. In a readout of the call, which was confirmed by the Holy See press office, the Biden-Harris transition team said Biden “thanked His Holiness for extending blessings and congratulations and noted his appreciation for His Holiness' leadership in promoting peace, reconciliation, and the common bonds of humanity around the world.” The two then discussed shared interests including “caring for the marginalized and the poor, addressing the crisis of climate change, and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities.”
The difference between the pope’s reaction to Trump and Biden could not be more stark with the pope and Trump clashing on a number of occasions. In February 2016, Francis said anyone who wants to build walls is “not Christian” when asked about the southern border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Francis also criticized Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord and expressed concern over when Trump undid President Obama’s move to restore trade and travel with Cuba.
Steven Millies, associate professor of Public Theology and director of The Bernardin Center, Catholic Theological Union, has studied Catholicism in the American political spectrum for 30 years. He points to other up-and-coming Catholics in the Democratic Party including Julián Castro, Ted Lieu, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as beacons of light. He says the Biden presidency provides a moment of “opportunity to promote the diversity of Catholic social teaching rather than seeing it through the preeminent, singular lens of abortion.”
To be clear, Francis is not an advocate of abortion, and it may be this issue that divides the two if Biden takes decisive action to protect women’s reproductive rights, though it is already clear that Francis has more tolerance for Biden than Catholics like Burke.
Millies says today’s church under Pope Francis is not the same as it was under Pope John XXIII when the first Catholic president was sworn in six decades ago. “The Catholic Church today is very different from the one to which JFK belonged,” he says. “The church is more diverse, but it is also shrinking rapidly. And, increasingly, the Catholic Church is a body at war with itself. Biden is a different sort of Catholic for this moment.” In short, Biden is a Pope Francis kind of Catholic.