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Joseph Biden: a frank and abiding faith

How Catholic ideals of fighting the abuse of power have shaped the life and politics of the presidential hopeful.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 27, 2007


From his childhood bedroom in a treeless industrial suburb of Wilmington, Del., Joe Biden looked out on Archmere, an Italianate mansion and Catholic boys high school that he called "the object of my deepest desire, my Oz."

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Archmere was also the home of financier John Jacob Raskob, who ran the 1928 campaign of Gov. Al Smith (D) of New York, the first Roman Catholic to become the presidential nominee of a major US political party.

Against long odds, Senator Biden aims to be No. 4. He sees faith and values, as well as his own deep experience in public policy, as a key to that race.

"The animating principle of my faith, as taught to me by church and home, was that the cardinal sin was abuse of power," he said in an interview with the Monitor. "It was not only required as a good Catholic to abhor and avoid abuse of power, but to do something to end that abuse."

The issues that have most engaged Biden in public life draw on those teachings, from halting violence against women to genocide. At a personal level, his faith provides him peace, he says. "I get comfort from carrying my rosary, going to mass every Sunday. It's my time alone," he says.

But the interface of faith and policy has long been problematic for Catholic presidential hopefuls. Governor Smith faced withering criticism over whether Catholic politicians are obliged by their church to take policy orders from Rome. John F. Kennedy famously disavowed "outside religious pressures or dictates," swept the Catholic vote, and won the presidency. By the time another J.F.K. from Massachusetts ran for president in 2004, the ground had shifted. Sen. John F. Kerry lost the Catholic vote because many of his faith questioned whether he was Catholic enough, given his strong support for abortion rights.

But Biden believes he can bridge much of that divide. "My views are totally consistent with Catholic social doctrine," says Biden, a six-term Democratic senator from Delaware. "There are elements within the church who say that if you are at odds with any of the teachings of the church, you are at odds with the church. I think the church is bigger than that."

At home in the church

Biden says he grew up feeling at home in the church. In the Irish neighborhoods in Scranton, Pa., where he spent most of his weekends, a majority of the kids were Catholic. Neighbors attended mass, and nuns and priests were a respected part of daily life. "Wherever there were nuns, there was home," he writes in a new book on his life and politics, "Promises to Keep."

"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," he writes.

That comfort zone extended to the Biden family. "At the time that I was going to Catholic school and living in my parents' home, there was a perfect fit between the theology of the church and the philosophy of my parents," he told the Monitor.

In the Biden family, children were taught to respect the habit, but not necessarily the person in it. As a boy, Biden took endless ribbing from classmates for a stutter he later overcame. Much of the time, the nuns tried to help. But when a seventh-grade teacher mimicked Bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-Biden's stutter in front of the class, his mother, Jean, demanded a meeting with the principal and the offending nun. "If you ever speak to my son like that again, I'll come back and rip that bonnet off your head," she said. Later, when then-Senator Biden told her he was going to visit the pope, she said: "Don't you kiss his ring."

In junior high school, Biden considered, briefly, entering a seminary in Baltimore to become a priest. His mother had other ideas. "I told him: 'Wait until you start dating girls, then go,' " said Mrs. Biden, in a brief conversation after a speech her son gave at the National Press Club Aug. 1. Biden later confirmed the incident. "I can't believe she told you that," he says. "My mother thought I had to experience life first, and she was right."