The other day, The Tablet reported the headline, “Biden is Catholic and observant, says Benedict,” covering remarks made by the former Pope in an interview.
Now, the way the headline presents the remark, it was bound to cause a bit of a kerfuffle. It makes one imagine perhaps that Benedict was responding precisely to a question about whether Biden can truly be called a Catholic; or else that he was informally issuing a theological opinion against some sort of contrary proposition. At the very least, it seems to make out that this observation about Biden was somehow Benedict’s main point, or at least a main point. Inevitably, then, the headline became a football for the culture wars.
I saw one person on Twitter replying to a U.S. Bishop’s criticism of Biden’s pro-abortion policies, tweeting the story with the comment, “Listen to the Pope.” Another tweet that I saw quoted the headline with the observation, “Rome has spoken;” while yet another added that one could “hear conservatives’ heads exploding.”
Now, to be fair, this last comment did sort of hit a mark. I did see a fair number of fellow pro-lifers and Catholics having a little hissy fit about the whole thing, with reactions ranging from lamentations about feeling “betrayed,” to decrials that this was “fake news”—suggestions made that the quote had been doctored or even wholly invented, or that an unscrupulous journalist had taken advantage of a failing nonagenarian, and so forth. As to the earlier remarks on Twitter, on the other hand, one might respond that if one would “listen” to Benedict, one could start by not calling him “the Pope.” That is to say, even if this was all that it seemed to be, it would simply be an informal opinion, expressed in an interview, of a private—albeit certainly eminent—theologian, who does not in any case speak for “Rome.” Furthermore, even if this had been voiced by the reigning Pope, we know from no paucity of experience that a mere interview never merits the evaluation, “Roma locuta est” (“Rome has spoken”).
But is it even what it seems at first blush?
What Benedict said is pretty plainly translated from the Italian: “È vero, è cattolico e osservante”—”It is true, he [Biden] is Catholic and observant.” However, context matters—go figure!—and it is worth reading the entire exchange from the original Italian article:
Su Biden, il secondo presidente cattolico dopo John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Ratzinger esprime qualche riserva sul piano religioso. «È vero, è cattolico e osservante. E personalmente è contro l’aborto,» osserva. «Ma come presidente, tende a presentarsi in continuità con la linea del Partito democratico… E sulla politica gender non abbiamo ancora capito bene quale sia la sua posizione,» sussurra, dando voce alla diffidenza e all’ostilità di buona parte dell’episcopato Usa verso Biden e il suo partito, considerati troppo liberal.
[As Google renders the translation]: “On Biden, the second Catholic president after John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Ratzinger expresses some reservations on a religious level. ‘It is true, he is Catholic and observant. And he personally is against abortion,’ he observes. ‘But as president, he tends to present himself in continuity with the line of the Democratic Party … And on gender politics we have not yet fully understood what his position is,’ he whispers, giving voice to the mistrust and hostility of a large part of the US episcopate towards Biden and his party, considered too liberal.”
Let us make a few observations:
First, it’s worth respecting the contextualization of the journalist in the room, to whom a remark gets made, because that individual will be in a position to register other cues besides the mere words: body language, tone, and such. It’s by no means insignificant, then, that this journalist leads into the quote from Benedict with the observation that Benedict was expressing “reservations” about Biden through what he said. In other words, this was not what The Tablet headline might make it seem: it was not Benedict’s point to defend Biden’s religious bona fides as against his critics, or anything like that.
Second, it’s also worth noting that certain sentence structures bear idiomatic connotations, across languages. I did a bit of research here; and though I have little facility in Italian, it was easy enough to discover that, contextually, “È vero” in Italian very often registers in very similar way as does the English equivalent of the leading statement, “It is true.” That is to say, this is one of those expressions that, when one hears it, causes the hearer (as the saying goes) to “feel a ‘but’ coming.” Indeed, based on my (admittedly cursory) researches using some online contextual dictionaries, the majority of instances I could find of Italian sentences using the phrase “è vero” (“it is true”) did have a “ma”—”but”—following. Or else, the phrase was at least to be found more commonly in sentence structures that, even if using different words, achieved the same effect of contrasting nuance: e.g., “while on the one hand it is true that,” etc.
This should not be surprising. It’s simply intuitive. I mean, think about it: consider the force and content of the phrase “it is true,” and reflect on your own patterns of usage and speech. When do you use this phrase? Is it often—or ever—in a baldly declarative way? After all, most of us don’t walk around speaking like characters in Lord of the Rings or Dune or another narrative where one is frequently given over to orotund orations: “It’s true you are a mighty warrior!” Forsooth! No; rather, it is far more likely that, if we ever do find ourselves saying, “It is true,” there is “a ‘but’ coming.” Thus, I might be asked a question about Dr. Phil McGraw, and find myself responding with a sentence that begins, “It is true he is a psychologist and was previously a licensed practitioner… BUT….”
In any case, we know from the context here that there in fact was a “but” (Italian “ma”) following Benedict’s initial observation. So, even if there weren’t a general tone to the phrase used (which I’d argue there is), in the instant case that tone is certainly there.
Where, then, does this leave us? Well, speaking personally, I find it simply to be the case that Benedict showed himself ready to admit what I myself have admitted, that it can be said that Joe Biden is a Catholic—he was baptized into the Church of Rome, after all, and has not ever formally repudiated that identification; indeed, he rather holds himself out as embracing it very ostentatiously. And as to his being “observant”—well, he does attend Mass weekly on Sundays (which is, sadly, more than can be said for a many Catholics). From a theological perspective, there could admittedly be some debate as to whether Biden merits the charge of formal heresy or has otherwise in some other technical way (vis-à-vis Canon Law) become excommunicate; but these are debatable and technical distinctions, and I don’t in any case read from the context here that Benedict was trying to be particularly technical. Or, rather, one could allow that maybe Benedict was acknowledging a belief that Biden is “technically” a Catholic… “but.” It is clear that Biden’s positions on abortion and gender are not, in the former Pontiff’s view, commensurate with the Catholic faith. Finally, and not quite incidentally, there are in Italian, just as in English, hosts of adjectives that are often used when speaking about religious practice and identity. The Italian language does, in fact, have words for “devout,” “pious,” “sincere,” “holy,” and “orthodox”—I’d actually wager that Italians probably have a richer and more varied vocabulary for speaking about this subject than Americans do! So it is at least arguable that if one would make much of the word Benedict chose to describe Biden’s religiosity, one could make just as much if not more by considering all of the words he did not choose
In sum, I’d say that The Tablet erred in its headline, giving far more significance to what Benedict said than the actual reported exchange merits. And in their turn, upon receiving the headline, readers of all persuasions—both left and right—themselves erred in also making more of it than the actual quote deserves, or even allows.
If I might put my final observation another way: I’d say that, yes, it is true that Benedict called Biden ‘Catholic and observant’…