Three Pieces of Advice to President Biden from Catholics in the Public Square
Webinar Panel Discussion
E.J. Dionne, Brookings Institution
Massimo Faggioli, Villanova University
Bishop Robert McElroy, Archdiocese of San Diego
Amy Uelmen, Georgetown Law
Date: Thursday, March 4, 2021
Time: 3 - 4pm EST
Bishop Robert McElroy, E.J. Dionne, Massimo Faggioli, and Amy Uelmen will each offer three pieces of advice for President Joseph Biden on how to deal with the U.S. bishops, the abortion issue, Hispanic Catholics in the U.S., and a range of other social and political issues.
On Thursday, March 4, the Boisi Center hosted an all-star panel featuring E.J. Dionne (Brookings Institution), Massimo Faggioli (Villanova University), Bishop Robert McElroy (Archdiocese of San Diego), and Amy Uelmen (Georgetown Law) to offer “Three Pieces of Advice to President Biden from Catholics in the Public Square.”
Mark Massa, S.J., director of the Boisi Center, moderated the discussion and led by asking the panelists to offer their three pieces of advice. Dionne led by clarifying that Catholics who look at the president are doing so not as Catholics but as citizens. In that capacity, they are asking of him to focus on the virus, the economy, and taking care of jobs, education, and healthcare—a focus on real issues as opposed to culture wars, which would benefit the country and the American church. He continued by encouraging Biden to recast the conversation on family, which understood through the Catholic lens can influence much by way of social justice; to focus, with Pope Francis, on global poverty, climate change, human rights, and immigration; and to move toward more faith-based partnerships.
Faggioli encouraged Biden to be open to the U.S. bishops, challenging the minority of idealogues in the U.S. church and among the ranks of the bishops. Additionally, America should have something like a Jubilee, signaling human fraternity in line with Francis’s teachings, to address those things that cannot be met by policies. Finally, the church and the country should follow a “synodal path,” in which the president assures them his administration is not a reversal of fortunes, but will be about real healing.
Next, McElroy gave his advice, which was, first, that Biden should reclaim patriotism from the “tribal mantra” of “America first.” Our aspirations are what constitute our patriotism, and the elements of that patriotism resonate with Catholic social teaching. Second, he urged Biden to remember that the fundamental moral challenge for a Catholic public official is not to align completely with Catholic teaching, but rather to use an authentically informed conscience to guide their decisions. And finally, he urged Biden to invite Archbishop Gomez (president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) to dinner at which the two could talk about their jobs and their respective difficulties, and that a very productive relationship could emerge.
Uelmen pointed to “On Dealing with Others,” by St. Ignatius of Loyola, a communication to the Jesuits who would be working at the Council of Trent. To do the job well, Ignatius encouraged them to, first, get out of the reactive mode, allowing the time for deep listening to inform their thought; second, to still find time to pay attention to those on the margins, which allows a deeper meaning to enter one’s life; and third, to treasure and nourish relationships with those that provide critical feedback.
Massa circled back to Dionne’s mention of the culture wars, asking the other panelists about how Biden might avoid continuing them. Faggioli thought that he had done that already because there is no “pulpit” being used to give it voice, as the past president did. McElroy acknowledged that it is difficult to change the language of discourse, even though Biden and his administration is trying. That policies do not get Republican votes still says something about the cultural war, even if only along the lines of political polarization. Uelmen added that many of us are caught in echo chambers without acknowledging the damage they cause, so one must attempt to dismantle them.
Massa then turned to Faggioli’s “synodal path,” asking about its meaning. Faggioli explained that it means a new kind of national conversation that reflects the aspiration of a people to be part of a national discourse about participation, involvement, and fundamentally about democracy being worth saving. It parallels the desire of Pope Francis to help engage participation in the church, but also one that will be mirrored in the participation of people in global democracies. Along these lines, McElroy thought that it reflects what Catholicism really is—something many Catholics do not actually know. Uelmen brought attention to the difficulty of having real conversations about politics in our current climate and she and Dionne wondered whether and how that might change.
Questions from viewers began asking about how one might initiate a conversation between Biden and Gomez, which McElroy said it would be about relationships and enhanced by a shared family experience and a shared concern about immigration. Another viewer flipped the question asking what advice should be given to the U.S. bishops, about which McElroy said that the first step as bishops is to try to approach the administration as they do all administrations, in dialogue and to advocate with a sense of supportiveness in the basic act of governance, not opposition. John Courtney Murray, S.J. was raised by another viewer, particularly his notion of “civil conversation.” McElroy and Faggioli reminded the viewers that Murray’s thought was always an ethical aspiration, one which was continuously worked upon, and that none of the American tenets should be dogmatized, even those aspects of religious freedom in the Constitution. Uelmen concluded by pointing to Murray’s “Towards a Theology for the Layman,” which offered resources for shifting the tone of laypeople around the Second Vatican Council, which encouraged a move away from apologetics to something more constructive that engages other disciplines and the world around us.
Dionne, E.J. “The Biden they didn’t expect.” The Chippewa Herald. January 18, 2021. https://chippewa.com/opinion/columnists/e-j-dionne-the-biden-they-didnt-expect/article_7e719d41-b4bf-5a12-a871-815f9979e9bf.html.
Dionne, E.J. “Radical, Moderate, and Necessary: American Politics & Social Catholicism.” Commonweal. September 30, 2020. https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/radical-moderate-and-necessary.
Dionne, E.J. “Opinion: Joe Biden and the struggle for American Catholicism.” The Washington Post. January 27, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/joe-biden-and-the-struggle-for-american-catholicism/2021/01/27/2ea5c278-60df-11eb-9430-e7c77b5b0297_story.html.
Faggioli, Massimo. “What Joe Biden (and all American Catholics) owe Jesuit John Courtney Murray.” America. January 19, 2021. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2021/01/19/joe-biden-john-courtney-murray-who-was-239757.
Faggioli, Massimo. “A Reset With Rome, But Not at Home: The Vatican welcomes a Biden presidency. Do the bishops?” Commonweal. November 23, 2020. https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/reset-rome-not-home.
Faggioli, Massimo. Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States. New London, CT: Bayard, Inc., 2021.
Fraga, Brian. “Bishop McElroy: Denial of Communion to pro-choice politicians by bishops’ conference would be ‘destructive.’” Our Sunday Visitor. February 1, 2021. https://www.osvnews.com/2021/02/01/bishop-mcelroy-denial-of-communion-to-pro-choice-politicians-by-bishops-conference-would-be-destructive/.
Stone, Ken. “Bishop McElroy Wants Catholic Church to be ‘Proud Collaborators’ with Biden.” Times of San Diego. November 24, 2020. https://timesofsandiego.com/life/2020/11/24/bishop-mcelroy-wants-catholic-church-to-be-proud-collaborators-with-biden/.
In his recent article in the New Yorker, Paul Elie sees the comparisons drawn between Pope Francis and Joe Biden as indicating one way that Joe Biden can heal the nation following the polarizing presidency of his predecessor.