A Jesuit Priest On How Faith Informs Biden's Leadership NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with the Rev. James Martin, a writer and Jesuit priest, about President Biden's inaugural address and the role that faith has played in his personal and political life.

A Jesuit Priest On How Faith Informs Biden's Leadership

A Jesuit Priest On How Faith Informs Biden's Leadership

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NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with the Rev. James Martin, a writer and Jesuit priest, about President Biden's inaugural address and the role that faith has played in his personal and political life.


When President Joe Biden took the oath of office this morning, he placed his hand on a thick, worn, brown leather Bible. It's a family heirloom he's carried throughout his political career. President Biden is Catholic, and he wears his faith more publicly than many presidents. He often quotes the Bible and Catholic thought in speeches, as he did today.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And I promise you this - as the Bible says, weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. We will get through this together - together.

SHAPIRO: Reverend James Martin is a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America magazine. And he joins us to talk more about the president's speech and how faith informs Biden's leadership. Good to have you here.

JAMES MARTIN: Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: Before we get to the language of the speech, tell us broadly where you see Biden's Catholic faith manifest over the last 24 hours.

MARTIN: Well, he started off the day with Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral with a friend of his, Kevin O'Brien, a Jesuit. He had a Jesuit priest, Leo O'Donovan, do the invocation. He sprinkled, as you said, Catholic references. It really is part of who he is. I don't think you can separate Joe Biden from his Catholic faith. So it's - that's part of his life.

SHAPIRO: Well, in that speech, there wasn't a lot of scripture quoted. But I do want to ask you about this moment.


BIDEN: Many centuries ago, St. Augustine, a saint in my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.

SHAPIRO: And then he went on to list those common objects that Americans love - opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, et cetera. I understand you think that line makes this a very Catholic speech. Explain why.

MARTIN: Well, it's not every day that you hear St. Augustine quoted in an inauguration address.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

MARTIN: I was with my Jesuit brothers watching it, and we all sort of - our eyebrows went up. It's - he could have just talked about we need to work together. But instead, he brought in St. Augustine. I think the whole speech was pretty Catholic, though. It was around the notion of the common good, which is part of Catholic social teaching. So I would say explicitly and implicitly, it was a Catholic speech.

SHAPIRO: Explain that idea of the common good and why it is so central to Catholicism.

MARTIN: Well, because it's more than just the individualism that we tend to think about in the United States and in terms of laissez-faire capitalism - it's not just every person for himself or herself. It's working towards something that is common. And it's - that means contributing something to the common good, to society. And that sometimes can be seen at odds with sort of rugged individualism. But, you know, I think Biden is a - or President Biden was right to to raise it, especially today when we're facing pandemic and all sorts of other problems.

SHAPIRO: President Biden's deep Catholic faith is well known, and it's very different from someone like Justice Amy Coney Barrett or the Catholic voters who supported President Trump. Can you talk about that?

MARTIN: Sure. It's a big church. Catholics - the Catholic Church is not a monolith. And so we have Catholics who are Democrats and Republicans, who are progressive and traditional, who are conservative and liberal. And I would say that Amy Coney Barrett's Catholicism - they're both Catholic, and they're both sincere in their Catholicism - stresses some things and not other things or - and the same with President Biden. So - you know, on the fundamentals, they agree. But it's a different way of being Catholic, I would say.

SHAPIRO: Would you say that one approach is the minority in American Catholicism today?

MARTIN: That's a good question. I might say half and half. I think that the, shall we say, the more traditionalist side has been more active and perhaps more - I don't want to say loud - but maybe public about their faith. And I think people tend to forget about the progressive side that I think President Biden probably more fully reflects than Justice Barrett.

SHAPIRO: Let me also ask you about the public response or lack thereof to Biden's Catholic faith. I was not alive to cover the Kennedy presidential campaign, but I understand it was a very big deal when he ran for office and so much less so right now.

MARTIN: Yes. And I - you know, President Kennedy - I think I was 1 year old when that happened. President Kennedy was forced to go before a group of Protestant pastors and say explicitly, the Vatican will not tell me what to do. There was this fear that, you know, the pope was just going to call him up and tell him what to do. And Catholics, since then, have been really enculturated into American culture. And so I don't think people - there might be some anti-Catholicism. But for the most part, people say, well, he's Catholic. He's Christian, and so that's fine with me. There's not as much virulent anti-Catholicism that he had to address.

SHAPIRO: Finally, how do you think President Biden's faith will inform his leadership over the next four years?

MARTIN: Well, certainly his faith in Jesus is going to help him, you know, look at problems with the poor. Hopefully, you know, he'll be considering what Pope Francis had said on the environment and on other issues. But I think you're also going to see a more Catholic culture - I think, you know, references to the saints, to the sisters he knew, to going to Mass. You know, President Biden is someone who speaks personally very frequently, and a big part of his personal life is his faith. And so, you know, get ready for at least four years of more Catholic culture.

SHAPIRO: That is Reverend James Martin, editor at large of America magazine and a Jesuit priest. Thank you for speaking with us today.

MARTIN: My pleasure.

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