President Joe Biden has been characterized as a “liberal” Catholic. What does that mean? Calling a form of religion “liberal” means two things. There is theological liberalism, which seeks an evolution in doctrine to adapt to modern needs. That is the liberalism of the Second Vatican Council. Pope John XXIII described it as the effort to open the windows of the Catholic Church to the modern world. The church, in his words, embraces “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” (“The Church in the Modern World” #74.)
The second meaning of a liberal church is one that supports the policies and parties of the political center-left. President Biden is a liberal Catholic in both senses of that description. A decade ago, it was commonplace to regard liberal Catholicism as a tradition in decline. The conservative pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI supported the liberal decline of the church. Conservative Catholics felt that liberal ideas had been tried and failed. Liberal Catholics felt that they had been suppressed. But then Pope Francis gave the liberal tendency new life, reopening controversies that conservatives assumed were closed and tilting the Vatican toward cooperation with the liberal establishment and away from associations with conservatism. Most recently, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops issued a strong rebuke to President Biden’s position on abortion.
Bishops like Cardinals Cupich of Chicago and Joseph Tobin of Newark pushed back and supported the statement of Bishop McElroy of San Diego. McElroy criticized those questioning Biden’s personal Catholic faith based on his positions on abortion, decrying it as “an assault on the meaning of what it is to be Catholic.” McElroy said that “although acts of abortion are intrinsically evil, legislation about it is a matter of prudential judgement, and furthermore that Catholic identity does not stand or fall on a single policy position. Catholic social teaching and identity encompasses such things as solidarity, compassion, love for the church, and ‘having a grace-filled relationship with God.’”
In the end there are three distinctive liberal-Catholic qualities: ”An abiding institutionalism, in contrast to the pure dissolving individualism of so much American religion; an increasing multiethnic character; which matches our increasingly diverse republic; and a fervent inclusivity, an anxiety that nobody should feel discriminated against or turned away.” (Ross Douthat, NYT, Jan.23, 2021) This best describes President Biden’s Catholic heart. It is clearly religiously liberal. David McBriar, O.F.M.