US President Biden has made much of his faith. His faith guides him in his politics, he says. Denis McDonough, the former Chief of Staff to Barack Obama, says he is fond of massaging his Rosary in times of stress. Biden will be one of the first regular churchgoers in office for some time. His avowed faith sometimes appears subservient to his politics.
Biden’s fellow Catholics loom large in his incoming administration. Eight of fifteen nominees for cabinet secretary positions are his coreligionists: Lloyd Austin (Defense); Deb Haaland (Interior); Tom Vilsack (Agriculture); Gina Raimondo (Commerce), Martin Walsh (Labor); Xavier Becerra (Health and Human Services); Pete Buttigieg (Transportation) and Denis McDonough (Veteran Affairs).
Biden’s choice for Health Secretary is former California Attorney General. He has been praised for his alignment with Pope Francis on migrants, healthcare and the environment. The head of the Catholic Health Association, Sr. Mary Haddad told the National Catholic Reporter, she is pleased Becerra is to take the role.
“These are all critical issues that Pope Francis has come out very strongly on,” she said, “so I’m just delighted to have someone who has articulated and someone who has a track record on advancing those causes”.
Not all pro-life advocates are not so sanguine. In a letter to the Senate, forty high profile pro-lifers called on them to reject Becerra’s nomination for the DHHS.
“Mr Becerra carries a national reputation for his vehement, unwavering support for abortion,” they wrote, “including in the ninth month, his staunch convictions in opposition to conscience rights for medical professionals, and his hostile opinions regarding the freedoms of religious organisations, among other issues that are of major concern to us.”
In the US House of Representatives, where Becerra served for nearly a quarter of a century before becoming California’s Attorney General, he voted against the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act and the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. The last act was put forward to prevent abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, when the foetus is capable of feeling pain.
In 2018, he asked the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to require the Little Sisters of the Poor to provide contraceptives under provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
Biden’s nominee for Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg, justified his own pro-choice stance by saying, “there’s a lot of parts of the bible that talk about how life begins with breath”.
Beyond these two, there is the faith of former Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, who grew up in a home with crucifixes on every wall and spoke in reverential terms about his meeting with the Pope, to which he brought a bag full of his friends’ Rosaries for a papal blessing. There is John Kerry, who carried a Rosary and a St Christopher medal in his pocket during his political campaigns and praised the Pope’s encyclical about the environment in 2015. He is to be Biden’s Special Envoy for the Environment – a new cabinet-level position Biden has created.
But does their Catholicism mean anything?
During his campaign, Biden frequently cited Pope Francis and biblical verse, particularly the latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti, but the page dedicated to Catholics for Biden on his campaign site reads like little more than Democratic policy with a light dusting of scripture.
Whatever alignment there may be between Biden and Becerra with the Pope on refugees, the environment and the provision of health care; they remain at odds with the Holy Father on the fundamental issue of abortion. Optics are apparently important to Biden.
From across the pond on this secular isle of Britain, it seems comical that Biden — or his cabinet for that matter –feel the need to bring their faith into their politics and put “a party label on God”. If you believe what you believe, say so.
Speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper in early December Biden outlined his priorities for his cabinet: “I’m going to keep my commitment that the administration, both in the White House and outside in the Cabinet, is going to look like the country,”
“You’ll see the most diverse Cabinet representative of all folks, Asian Americans, African Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ, across the board”, he continued.
The impression one get is that their faith is tangential: irrelevant to their politics, whatever one might think of those.
This article was first published on the Catholic Herald’s website.