Religious Biography

Joe Biden

Born in Pennsylvania to Irish-Catholic parents, Joe Biden briefly considered becoming a priest when he was a young student. Biden attended Holy Rosary parochial school and Archmere Academy, a Catholic prep school, in Claymont, Del., where his family moved when he was 10 years old. His interest in politics was sparked as early as 10th grade by the civil rights movement and the presidency of John F. Kennedy. “I remember being so proud that [Kennedy] was Catholic,” Biden told The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., in 2005.

After graduating from the Syracuse University College of Law in 1968, Biden returned to Delaware to practice law as a public defender and in private practice. In his 2007 memoir, “Promises to Keep,” he describes being a public defender as “God’s work.”

In 1972, shortly after being elected to the Senate at age 29, Biden lost his wife and one-year-old daughter in a car crash in which his two sons also were injured. In “Promises to Keep” he writes about a crisis of faith he suffered after the accident, saying, “All my life, I’d been taught about our benevolent God. … This was a loving God, a God of comfort. Well, I didn’t want to hear anything about a merciful God. No words, no prayer, no sermon gave me ease. I felt God had played a horrible trick on me, and I was angry. I found no comfort in the Church.” In time, Biden’s faith returned, according to accounts from friends and family reported in a 2007 Christian Science Monitor profile. He later remarried and in 1981 had another daughter.

I’m very proud to be Catholic. It’s part of my spirituality, part of my identity. When John Kennedy ran for president, I remember being so proud that he was Catholic. But he had to prove that he wasn’t ruled by his beliefs. I’m with John Kennedy on the role religion ought to play in politics.

Interview, The News Journal (Wilmington, Del.), August 2005

Seven years later, in 1988, he was given last rites by a priest before recovering from a life-threatening aneurysm and brain surgery. Before the surgery, he asked to keep his rosary under his pillow. “I get comfort from carrying my rosary, going to Mass every Sunday,” he said in a 2007 interview with The Christian Science Monitor. He described his recovery as “a second chance in life.”

At times during his political career, media reports have focused on Biden’s faith. In May 2011, he reportedly held his rosary ring in the White House Situation Room during the U.S. military operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Biden met with Pope John Paul II on at least four occasions and attended his funeral in 2005.

In June 2011, Biden met for a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI, John Paul’s successor, at the Vatican. Some of the media coverage after the unannounced meeting highlighted the disparity between Biden’s pro-abortion-rights stance and the Catholic Church’s teaching against abortion. But there was no public statement from either the Vatican or the White House about whether the topic came up.

Biden’s position on abortion had come up five years earlier, much closer to home. In 2006, Archmere Academy, Biden’s high school alma mater, canceled plans to name a new student center in his honor after pressure from Michael Saltarelli, the bishop of the Diocese of Wilmington at the time. Saltarelli asserted that a 2004 statement by the U.S. bishops forbids Catholic institutions from honoring public figures who support abortion rights.

Biden and his wife, Jill Jacobs Biden, attend Mass at St. Patrick’s Church or St. Joseph on the Brandywine Church, both parishes in the Diocese of Wilmington; he recommended St. Patrick’s former priest, the Rev. James Trainor, to serve as a guest chaplain in the Senate in 2001. Two days before his swearing in as vice president in January 2009, Biden attended Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, the same Washington, D.C., church Kennedy attended while he was president. On Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent) in February 2009, Biden was photographed with ashes on his forehead at a public event, reportedly a first for a Catholic political figure of his stature. Biden is the United States’ first Catholic vice president. (Kennedy was the only Catholic president.) The 2012 election marks the first time both major parties have had a Catholic presidential or vice presidential candidate.

Published on June 14, 2011
PHOTO CREDIT: © Luis Alvarez/ /AP/Corbis