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.

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."

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."

Child of Vatican II

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.

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.

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.

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