President Joe Biden’s “strong Catholic faith” was absent from his 2024 campaign announcement. In the barrage of images that play across the screen in his three-minute ad, only a few relate to Christianity at all. After a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of a baptist church sign against a sky, we see what appears to be a Protestant preacher, followed quickly by a picture of the president talking to a young boy in a church. They both flash by within a single second.
It’s of a piece with a wider pattern. Most Catholics do not want Biden to run for a second term, and marginally backed Presbyterian Donald Trump in the 2020 election. Now, in a campaign Biden is calling a “battle for the soul of America”, the faith he has long claimed seems entirely absent, replaced with notably un-Catholic messages in favour of abortion and gay marriage.
This comes on the heels of a month of episodes placing him directly at odds with the Catholic Church, including revelations the FBI sought to develop sources inside Catholic parishes, Walter Reed Military Hospital canceling a contract for Catholic services as the nation entered Holy Week, and the Justice Department recommending no charges against a transgender individual who caused $30,000 of damage at a Catholic church in Washington, assaulting an employee, smashing a window and a statue of the Virgin Mary, and spray-painting anti-Catholic messages on the walls.
This trend is not surprising, even if its intensity is shocking: The president has a long history of working against church teachings on life, marriage, and sexuality. While he served as vice president, the Obama administration fought lawsuits over contraception and abortion mandates from plaintiffs ranging from the Archdiocese of New York to Florida’s Ave Maria University.
In 2012 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called for an annual “Fortnight for Freedom,” wherein clergy would use the two weeks leading to July 4th to stress the issues of religious freedom under attack from Washington. It was a rare (if timid) foray into politics for the USCCB.
Eight years later, as the nuns of the Little Sisters of the Poor continued to fight the contraception mandate in the Supreme Court, the Democrats’ Catholic nominee was on his way to winning on a platform that favored those mandates – in addition to embracing child sex-change, gay marriage, and late-term abortion. He won, and quickly set to work on his agenda over the protests of a few bishops (and the tacit approval of a few others).
Catholic voters once formed powerful voting blocs, empowering men like Boston Mayor James Michael Curley and the infamous Tammany Hall machine. In the 1930s and ’40s, the Catholic bloc was an important part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s labor coalition. No more; but what seems like a suddenly pathetic state of affairs for the Church in America has in reality been in the works for over half a century.
History lauds President John F. Kennedy for making Catholicism “respectable,” but forgets he did so by repudiating his faith. In his famous campaign speech on religious tolerance, Kennedy promised he was “against an ambassador to the Vatican,” against financial aid to Catholic schools, and that his decisions “on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject” would be decided by “what my conscience tells me,” regardless of church teaching.
“I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he said. “I do not speak for my church on public matters – and the church does not speak for me.”
Kennedy’s speech stood in stark contrast with his Catholic American predecessors: Men like founding father Charles Carroll, and his cousin, the first archbishop of the United States. Or men like Irish Brigade chaplain and Notre Dame founder Fr. William Corby, whose Gettysburg absolution stirred the souls of the Protestant officers looking on.
But his speech did stand in line with many of the American bishops, who were silent in the face of Kennedy’s speech. It stands in line with popular opinion among many clergy at that time, who would soon seize on “the spirit of Vatican II” to loot their people’s churches in the hopes of making their faith more popular. It stands in line with D.C.’s Cardinal Wilton Gregory, who was happy to condemn Republican President Donald Trump, but has proved more circumspect on Biden, noting that he is “not demonstrating Catholic teaching”.
The steady decline in Catholic political power (and attendance) follows its cowardice to condemn attacks on its moral teachings. This is why Biden has no reason to fear a Catholic backlash to his Catholic targeting.
“I believe in an America,” Kennedy once said, “where there is no Catholic vote.”
The bishops nodded along. And they reaped it.
Christopher Bedford is executive editor at The Common Sense Society