Can Catholic Social Teaching Unite a Divided America?

President Joe Biden, the second Catholic in history to hold the office, has made religion a prominent element of his public role. He attended Mass on the morning of his inauguration, quoted the theologian and philosopher St. Augustine in his inaugural speech and placed a photograph of Pope Francis, whom he has praised as a personal inspiration, behind his desk in the Oval Office.

Mr. Biden’s approach is a far cry from that of the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, who sought to dispel prejudice against his faith by assuring an audience of Protestant ministers during the 1960 campaign: “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

Perhaps inevitably, the start of the Biden administration has kicked off a debate over how Catholic his policies actually are.

Progressive Catholics see much of Mr. Biden’s agenda, in areas such as migration, race relations, economic inequality and the environment, as the church’s social teaching in action. “President Biden has a natural disposition to compassion, but Catholic social teaching in those areas, particularly with the poor and those who are victimized in various ways, provides a framework for that compassion,” Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, one of the leading liberals in the U.S. church, said in an interview.

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