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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.

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Child of Vatican II

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Biden was one of the first Catholic politicians of the Vatican II generation. From 1962 to 1965, the Vatican Council II produced documents that opened the door to ecumenical dialogue, freedom of religion and conscience, and greater involvement of the laity in affairs of the church, including saying the mass in English and more emphasis on individual Bible study.

"I was raised at a time when the Catholic Church was fertile with new ideas and open discussion about some of the basic social teaching of the Catholic Church," Biden says. "Questioning was not criticized; it was encouraged."

He recalls a question in a ninth-grade theology class at Archmere. "How many of you questioned the doctrine of transubstantiation?" the teacher asked, referring to the teaching that the bread and wine change into the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist. No hands were raised. Finally, Biden raised his. "Well, we have one bright man, at least," the teacher said.

The teacher didn't say criticizing the church was good. "He led me to see that if you cannot defend your faith to reason, then you have a problem," Biden says.

Church in public life

As a US senator – one of the youngest ever to be elected – Biden was forced into quick decisions on how closely to follow church teachings in his votes and daily life.

First was a family crisis. After a surprise upset victory to win his Senate seat in November 1972, Biden lost his wife, Neilia, and baby daughter, Naomi, in a traffic accident the week before Christmas. His sons, Beau and Hunter, were badly injured. He considered resigning but was persuaded by the Senate majority leader to give it six months. Colleagues urged him to bury himself in work. Gradually, he did.

His spiritual crisis was not so readily resolved. "I never doubted that there was a God, but I was angry with God," he says. "I was very self-centered: How could God do this to me?"

Friends close to Biden during this time credit his faith for helping pull him through the despair. "In times of crisis, he goes to church a lot," says Ted Kaufman, a former chief of staff who was with Biden for 22 years.

What also helped break his rift with God was a cartoon his father, Joe Biden Sr., gave him. It showed "Hagar the Horrible" blasted by lightning. The bubble read, "Why me, God" – and the answer: "Why not." Biden says: "I realized, who am I to think that I'm so special?"

On the Senate floor, the tough votes also came early and often. In his first term, Biden faced the first of many votes on whether to curtail abortion rights for women. As a freshman Democrat, he was approached by all sides. He told them that while he personally opposes abortion, he would not vote to overthrow the US Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that gave women the right to terminate a pregnancy. Nor, however, would he vote to use federal funds to fund abortion.

"I don't think I have the right to impose my view – on something I accept as a matter of faith – on the rest of society," he writes in his autobiography.

A natural consensus-builder, Biden thrived in the Senate, despite an epic daily daily commute to Delaware to be with his family. He credits his second wife, Jill, with giving him back his life. In 1987, he launched a campaign for the presidency that was gaining traction in early primary states, until derailed by allegations of plagiarism. Then came a health crisis. Facing extensive brain surgery, he asked his doctors if he could keep his rosary under his pillow. It gave him comfort, he said.

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