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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Issues of faith also played in his decision to draft the 1994 Violence Against Women Act and to prevent genocide in the former Yugoslavia – both instances of abuse of power, he says. "My interest in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia started with a very persistent monk," writes Biden in his recent book. The monk, a Roman Catholic from Croatia, briefed Biden on what ethnic Serbs were doing to Catholic shrines in the former Yugoslavia. He says the conversation, and subsequent visits to the region, sparked his interest in how the US should respond to abuse of power in the region.Skip to next paragraph
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It's an ongoing theme in his foreign-policy judgments. In his recent speech before the National Press Club, Biden described his visit to a refugee camp in Chad, where tens of thousands of people had been forced to flee their homes in the Darfur region of the Sudan. Young families swarmed him, he said.
"I saw in their eyes the same look I'd seen just a few days earlier in Iraq among the Shiites who no longer had to hide from Saddam Hussein's Baathist thugs who had killed well over 100,000 of them in decades before," he said. "It was the look of hope and expectation, as if America could make a difference in their lives."
Iraq war vote
Despite strong opposition to the war in Iraq from both the Vatican and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Biden voted in 2002 to support the use of force in Iraq.
"Joe Biden is one of the most sincere Catholics I've known in my 40 years as a priest," says Monsignor William Kerr, executive director of the Claude Pepper Center at Florida State University. The two men met by chance outside Biden's Senate office and began a conversation on faith and politics that has continued nearly 30 years. Monsignor Kerr recounts a conversation with Biden on Pope John Paul II's efforts to discourage President Bush from going to war in Iraq. He says that Biden told him: "I just have to tell you the pope's wrong on this, I'm going with the president. That was morality, this is politics."
Looking back on this decision, he writes, "I made a mistake." He had "vastly underestimated" the incompetence of the Bush administration in its conduct of the war. The "fantasy" of remaking Iraq in the US image was a goal that could not be imposed on a "fragile and decimated country," he writes in his new book. Instead, Biden proposes a partition of Iraq along sectarian and ethnic lines to help restore security for Iraqis – and more robust international diplomacy to help sustain it.
Meanwhile, left-leaning Catholic groups aim to expand the debate in 2008 from the church teaching on abortion to Catholic values on social justice and war.
"There are those who say that Catholics should be robots: There's a formula, and if we don't follow that formula, we shouldn't present ourselves for communion on Sunday morning, says Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United. "That's an absolute misuse of Catholic teaching," he says, referring to the call of several Catholic bishops in the 2004 campaign to deny communion to Senator Kerry and other Catholic politicians who did not vote in line with Vatican teachings on abortion.
Without taking a position on how Catholics should vote, Biden makes a case for staying connected to the church and its culture. "If I were an ordained priest, I'd be taking some issue with some of the more narrow interpretations of the Gospel being taken now," Biden says. "But my church is more than 2,000 years old. There's always been a tug of war among prelates and informed lay members."
Biden is troubled, too, by ongoing sexual-abuse scandals involving children within the church. But he says his commitment to church remains unchanged. "This is my church as much as it is the church of a cardinal, bishop, or janitor, and I'm not going anywhere," he said. I care a great deal about my faith."
• The first two articles in this series, on Sen. Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney, appeared July 16 and Aug. 9.