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Six decades after JFK, the U.S. will have its second Catholic president

‘As a Vatican II Catholic, does Joe Biden have the moral grit to take on the country as it is today’

EVANSTON, Ill. —  As a Vatican II Catholic, President-elect Joe Biden brings to the role a perspective distinct from Catholic President John F. Kennedy -- as well as five of the Catholics justices currently serving on the U.S. Supreme Court -- that could inform the way he governs.

Northwestern University religious studies scholar Robert Orsi is available to media on the role of religion and the centering of “joy and hope” over sin in Biden’s worldview.

Orsi, a professor of history and religious studies, is the first holder of the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies. His studies focus on American religious history and contemporary practice; American Catholicism in both historical and ethnographic perspective, with particular interest in Vatican II and its impact on political and social systems. He can be reached via Erin Karter at (cell) 312-273-0277 or erin.karter@northwestern.edu.

Quote from Professor Orsi

“With Joe Biden’s election to the presidency, it at last makes sense to refer to JFK as ‘the first American Catholic president,’ rather than ‘the only American Catholic president,’ which is what he has been for 60 years. Since JFK’s election, the Catholic church and American society have gone through two major transitions — leftwards, associated in the church with Vatican II and in the U.S. with the ’60s, and rightwards, associated with John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, respectively.

“Joe Biden is a child of the first transition, while Justice Amy Coney Barrett and four of the other Catholics on the Supreme Court (not Justice Sotomayor) are of the second. He is a Vatican II Catholic, a ‘gaudium and spes’ Catholic—the name of the great encyclical of the Second Vatican Council, meaning joy and hope. Catholics in this period turned away from the sin-obsessed Catholicism, as they saw it, of the early 20th century. Confession declined in practice.

“Biden is steeped in the liberal values of 1960s and 1970s Catholicism worldwide — social justice, peace, human dignity, women’s rights, the preferential option for the poor. He brings a positive and upbeat social vision to Washington. But perhaps it requires a strong doctrine of sin to contend not only with the major issues, but with the fierce reaction by the GOP. Does the Vatican II Catholic have the moral grit to take on the country as it is today?”