A version of this article originally ran in August 2020. It has been updated to reflect that Biden is now the president-elect.
WASHINGTON (RNS) — In spring of 1980, Pope John Paul II had one of the longest meetings of his fledgling papacy. It wasn’t with a world leader, a U.S. president or even a secretary of state. It was with a 37-year-old Joe Biden, a U.S. senator barely a year into his second term.
According to a Catholic News Service account of the encounter, the pope shooed away Vatican aides several times when they attempted to interrupt the 45-minute conversation. After waving them out of the room, John Paul pulled his chair out from behind his desk to sit closer to Biden.
The pontiff ribbed the senator about his age as the two discussed everything from the politics of Eastern Europe to the spread of communism in Latin America. Biden, a Roman Catholic from Pennsylvania coal country with an interest in foreign policy, listened intently.
But despite the thrill of meeting John Paul, there was one thing Biden refused to do: kiss the pope’s ring, a customary greeting when meeting an esteemed cleric. It was later revealed that it was Biden’s mother who insisted he refrain, telling her son, “Don’t you kiss his ring.”
His refusal is a glimpse of how the president-elect, who has spent decades in the U.S. Senate and the White House, might approach his own power as he finally takes hold of an office he has sought since 1988. The moment in Rome is also a hallmark of how the president-elect manages his faith: a throwback brand of political Catholicism that eschews obsessive obedience to the Holy See on matters of policy.
An Irish Catholic educated by nuns in parochial schools, Biden is quick to invoke the church’s social teaching on the stump. But where Catholic morality rubs up against welfare or justice issues such as abortion and gay rights, Biden’s understanding of his duty as a politician and a Catholic is clear: Decisions are to be informed by the faith he learned from nuns of his youth, not dictated by it.
“I’m as much a cultural Catholic as I am a theological Catholic,” Biden wrote in his book “Promises to Keep: On Life in Politics.” “My idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion. It’s not so much the Bible, the beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, or the prayers I learned. It’s the culture.”
It’s a form of faith that experts describe as profoundly Catholic in ways that resonate with millions of American believers: It offers solace in moments of anxiety or grief, can be rocked by long periods of spiritual wrestling and is more likely to be influenced by the quiet counsel of women in habits or one’s own conscience than the edicts of men in miters.
Biden’s complicated relationship with the Catholic hierarchy is a slight reimagining of the Catholicism modeled by John F. Kennedy, the United States’ first Catholic president who, like Biden, declined to kiss a pontiff’s ring when he met Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in 1963.
Kennedy’s faith became a point of contention when, as a presidential candidate in 1960, he faced resistance and outright anti-Catholic bigotry from Protestant pastors concerned that a Kennedy administration could be manipulated from Rome. During the campaign, the Rev. Billy Graham and the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale met with others in Switzerland to discuss how “Protestants in America must be aroused in some way, or the solid block Catholic voting, plus money, will take this election.”
A month after their meeting, Kennedy traveled to Houston to deliver a speech to a group of pastors in which he declared: “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope.”
Biden, like many Catholic politicians, was inspired by Kennedy’s religious rules of engagement.
“When John Kennedy ran for president, I remember being so proud that he was Catholic,” Biden told the The News Journal of Wilmington, Delaware in 2005. “But he had to prove that he wasn’t ruled by his beliefs. I’m with John Kennedy on the role religion ought to play in politics.”
While serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1982, he faced a decision on whether to forward to the full Senate a constitutional amendment that would allow states to pass new abortion restrictions and effectively overturn Roe v. Wade, a landmark Supreme Court decision on abortion. Biden voted for the resolution, but insisted in an impassioned speech that while he personally opposed abortion on religious grounds — “I’m probably a victim, or a product, however you want to phrase it, of my background,” he explained — he remained unsure if he had “a right to impose” his religious beliefs on others.
“His separating of the secular sphere and the sacred sphere, not in his personal life but in his approach to governing, is straight out of that Kennedy lineage,” Natalia Imperatori, a professor at Manhattan College who studies Catholic ecclesiology, said of Biden.
But in the years that followed, the line between public policy and private beliefs seemed to fluctuate. Biden voted against the anti-abortion amendment when it once again appeared before the Judiciary Committee in 1983, but in 1984, he backed an amendment praising the so-called Mexico City policy, which banned the use of federal money for foreign groups that provide abortion counseling or referrals. By 1987, advocates for abortion rights were already describing his voting record on the issue as “erratic.”
Biden’s compartmentalization of faith and policy has become harder to maintain in recent years, especially after conservative church leaders and lay Catholics became more vocal under John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI. In January, Biden was reportedly denied Communion at a South Carolina Catholic church due to his abortion stance. Shortly after Biden announced Kamala Harris, a Baptist, as his running mate, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Rhode Island tweeted: “First time in awhile that the Democratic ticket hasn’t had a Catholic on it. Sad.”
“In 1960, Americans needed reassurance that Rome wouldn’t control the Catholic candidate’s conscience, and would allow Kennedy to govern in the nation’s interest,” Imperatori said. “This year, it seems that some bishops will accept nothing less than full control of Catholic consciences, be they the candidate’s, or the voters’.”
The criticism has weighed on Biden. Sister Simone Campbell, head of the Catholic social justice lobby Network, recounted a solemn moment at the signing ceremony for the Affordable Care Act in 2010 when she encountered the president elect along a rope line of dignitaries. Biden was initially elated, enthusiastically shouting, “Barack! Here’s my nun!” before his tone turned somber.
“He puts his forehead against my forehead and begins to talk about how faith matters to him and how painful it’s been for him to be excluded by some within the church,” Campbell recalled, noting that Biden and the Obama administration had faced fierce pushback from some Catholics over the ACA — including from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “There were hundreds of people there and we had this intimate pastoral visit.”
Biden, for his part, has occasionally shown a willingness to return the clerics’ barbs. When he met with Benedict in 2011, Biden reportedly chastised the pontiff for cracking down on nuns like Campbell who had backed the ACA in defiance of the bishops.
“You are being entirely too hard on the American nuns,” Biden told the pope, according to The New York Times. “Lighten up.”
Meanwhile, Biden’s personal connection to the faith remains a highly visible part of his political persona. He carries a rosary at all times, fingering it during moments of anxiety or crisis. When facing brain surgery after his short-lived presidential campaign in 1988, he reportedly asked his doctors if he could keep the beads under his pillow. Earlier this year, rival Pete Buttigieg noticed Biden holding a rosary backstage before a primary debate.
And in a now-famous photo taken in the White House Situation Room as U.S. Navy Seals raided the compound of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, Biden’s hands can be seen tucked beneath the table, reportedly thumbing his prayer beads.
“In order to pray your rosary in the Situation Room,” said John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, “you have to have a rosary in your pocket. That’s every day — not just when you’re going after bin Laden.”
These days, Biden’s rosary is also a symbol of the role faith plays in grief: He carries one that once belonged to his son Beau, who died of a brain tumor in 2015. Biden suggested to a group of Catholics he invited to his home in 2015 that the emotional toll of Beau’s death made it unlikely he would run for president in 2016. He explained that his wife had noticed a change in his posture because his “body was in mourning.”
“At that point he pulls out his rosary beads as he often does,” said Campbell, who was at the meeting. “(There was) comfort for him in knowing the promise of Jesus, in the gospel, and in what we believe.”
Biden, who also lost his first wife and a child in an automobile accident shortly after being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, talked about Beau’s death with Francis when the pontiff met with Biden’s extended family at the end of his 2015 U.S. visit. Biden later said the meeting with the pope “provided us with more comfort that even he, I think, will understand.”
When the two met again privately in St. Peter’s Basilica a year later during a Vatican conference on cancer, Ken Hackett, then ambassador to the Vatican, caught snippets of Francis offering “moving prayers and concerns about the vice president’s loss of a child.”
“Your religion is complicated, but your faith is something that really motivates and moves you every day — and gives you the strength to carry on,” Hackett said.
But it’s the nuns and rank-and-file Catholics, not popes, whom Biden most often relies on for religious counsel, once telling Campbell that it is “nuns and Jesuits who keep me Catholic.” It’s a preference shared by many of his fellow faithful: In opinion polls, U.S. Catholics show significantly higher support for nuns than for bishops.
Catholics are also more likely to side with Biden on issues of abortion and sexuality than with the church hierarchy. According to a recent RealClear Opinion Research poll, 53% of Catholics don’t agree with the church that abortion is “intrinsically evil,” and 51% say it should be legal in all or most cases. A 2019 Pew Research poll found that a sizable majority of Catholics — 61% — approve of same-sex marriage.
There is also broad agreement where Biden’s beliefs and church teachings overlap. Recent surveys show that most Catholics oppose President Donald Trump’s border wall and believe climate change is not only caused by humans but is one of the major issues facing the world.
The real question heading into the November election was whether Biden could win over white Catholics like himself, who skew more conservative than Latino Catholics. Abortion remains a thorny issue for the group (Carr, for instance, made clear that he was “disappointed” with Biden’s current abortion stance), and a Pew Research survey conducted in late July found that 59% of white Catholics currently either support or lean toward Trump — 1 percentage point lower than the president’s 2016 share. By contrast, only 40% of white Catholics said they support or are leaning toward voting for Biden — far from a majority, but roughly the same percentage Obama secured when he won reelection in 2012.
Early exit polls from Edison Research, the Washington Post and other news outlets from Tuesday report that Biden did, in fact, win Catholics overall — but just barely: Biden took home 51% of Catholics, compared to Trump’s 47%.
It’s a divided Catholic vote that has changed quite a bit since 1960, when Kennedy claimed somewhere between 70% and 83% of the group.
Yet Biden and his campaign found success by betting big that his emotive, localized faith would prove more durable among American churchgoers. In a video released by the Democratic National Committee showcasing Biden’s 2016 meeting with Francis, the editors didn’t focus on the grandeur of mingling with the bishop of Rome. Instead, they focused on a group of habited nuns that Biden bumped into when exiting St. Peter’s Basilica.
Speaking over images of the smiling nuns, Biden comments that Catholicism calls on believers to be “our brother’s keeper.”
“Being raised Catholic and being educated by the nuns — that’s what those lovely women I’m talking to symbolize to me,” he said.