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U.S. Government Sees Wave Of Catholic Leaders


Joe Biden is not the only Catholic to hold the reins of power right now - Speaker Nancy Pelosi, six Supreme Court justices, some eight of Biden's Cabinet picks and nearly a third of the lawmakers on Capitol Hill. It is a sea change in the political representation of a faith that not so long ago was viewed with suspicion in the United States. Joining us to discuss this wave of Catholic representation in U.S. government is Steven Millies. He's a professor of theology at the Catholic Theological Union. And he joins us now from his home in Evergreen Park, Ill. Welcome to the program.

STEVEN MILLIES: Thanks. It's great to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Biden's inauguration events foregrounded the Catholic faith. Cardinal Wilton Gregory prayed at the remembrance for COVID-19 victims. Father Leo Donovan delivered the invocation during the actual inauguration. And there were masses, prayer services throughout the week. What has Biden said about how his faith will guide his political work as president, if at all?

MILLIES: Well, I'm not sure he's really said all that much. He's done something far better than that. He's shown us. Joe Biden's public Catholicism has been a part of who he's been as a senator, as vice president, really, since he came into office in 1973. And what we continue to see is the way that his public faith transmits itself into public life just by simple gestures, something as simple as the sign of the cross that he made at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Inauguration Day but also in a whole life approach to public policy. Finally, though, in a very recognizably Catholic way, Joe Biden really speaks a language of unity and reconciliation. That's always appropriate but maybe never more appropriate than it is right now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But what Catholic school of thought does President Biden represent? Because, of course, there are so many.

MILLIES: Certainly a man of his age is someone who's formed very much by the Second Vatican Council, by that optimism that characterized midcentury Catholicism in the 20th century. Catholics had spent so much of the late 19th century and the early 20th century living in urban settings, ghettoized in a culture apart here in the United States. World War II brought Catholics into the mainstream. Certainly, the Cold War brought Catholics into the mainstream. And then in the 1960s, we had this wonderful moment of Catholic confidence with the election of the first Catholic president, John Kennedy, the Second Vatican Council, that told us that the church and the modern world can live together and can reinforce one another. Joe Biden's very much formed by those experiences as a man of his generation would be. It's an ecumenical outlook. It's an interreligious outlook. It's an outlook that sees the modern world as an opportunity rather than a problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you make of the abundance of Catholic government leaders that we're seeing right now? I mean, is this a Catholic renaissance of sorts?

MILLIES: A lot of those Catholic leaders that we see in government are people of Joe Biden's age or very near to it. Nancy Pelosi is a little bit older than Joe Biden. I think most of those members of Congress are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. What we're seeing is a sort of a last bloom of that Catholic moment that we had in the midcentury that grew up to maturity in the '70s and '80s and '90s. I'd hope this could be an opportunity for renaissance. But the distance between the Roman Catholic Church and public life in the United States is something we're watching grow right now rather than shrink. There are troubling signs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, I gather that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published a statement on Inauguration Day that was critical of Biden's stance on abortion, gay marriage, contraception. And yet Pope Francis has been largely supportive of President Biden's platforms.

MILLIES: Pope Francis, I think, has tried to lower the temperature in what is inside the United States and more and more around the Catholic world, a culture war rooted in abortion, rooted in an opposition between the modern world and the more traditional perspective on the world of Roman Catholicism. And so these fault lines inside the Catholic Church are growing more and more visible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you have these fault lines within the Catholic Church. And I'm just wondering if you see them playing out politically. I'm particularly interested in the Supreme Court and Biden.

MILLIES: I think what's always important to remember is, as much as we like to talk about a separation of church and state, it's always the same people who are entering the sanctuary to go to mass and who are coming out of the sanctuary to go to work, whether they go to work in a factory or a taxicab or a university or at the United States Supreme Court. How we practice our faith, each of us individually, determines a whole lot about how that's going to play itself out in terms of public life, whether we're voters or whether we're public officials.

I think the jury is still out on Amy Coney Barrett. We don't really know yet a whole lot about what sort of justice she is going to be. And one of the things that certainly happens with justices on the Supreme Court - I think we've seen this with John Roberts - is the time on the court tends to change and surprise even the justices themselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last question - you know, there's been a lot of debate as to whether we should even use the lens of religion to analyze our public officials or our justices. What are your thoughts on that?

MILLIES: Religion, whether it's Catholicism or not, is going to tell us something about a person. It's not going to tell us always something good or something bad, but it's just another piece of information to understand who a person is. Who we should want in public life at the end of the day isn't a resume. I don't think certainly a job like president of the United States - there is no resume that can prepare anyone for it, not even someone with as much experience as Joe Biden. What we're looking for is decency. What we're looking for is empathy. What we're looking for is someone who understands that this job is about the people who are being served and not about the person who's sitting in the office.

How a person practices their faith can tell us an awful lot about how they're going to hold that office. And I think that's one of the interesting things about watching Joe Biden and thinking about Joe Biden as a Catholic as much as any of those other public officials.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Steven Millies, professor of theology at the Catholic Theological Union. Thank you very much.

MILLIES: Thank you. I'm glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.