Watching President-elect Biden’s victory speech last night, I was struck by how his quotation of “Eagle’s Wings” (and a shout out to Mike Joncas, who is undoubtedly the first composer of Catholic liturgical music to be quoted in a presidential acceptance speech) was just so typical of how Catholics relate to Scripture.
Catholics have a reputation for being ignorant of the Bible. And it is certainly true that private Bible reading and study is not a part of Catholic piety, and perhaps it should be. But Catholics do encounter Scripture communally, in the context of liturgy. Indeed, even apart from the Scripture readings themselves, the songs and prayers of the liturgy are constantly quoting and alluding to Scripture. It was striking that Biden did not quote Psalm 91–which “Eagle’s Wings” is a fairly literal paraphrase of–but the song that he has undoubtedly sung many times in church, including at his son’s funeral. He probably had no idea that in quoting “Eagle’s Wings” he was quoting the Bible. To my mind, that doesn’t really matter all that much. What matters is that the liturgy enables Catholics (and other liturgically-oriented Christians) to internalize scripture. While it is certainly enriching to know that the Sanctus is from Isaiah 6 or that the response to the invitation to communion is from Matthew 8, but there is also something to the idea of Scripture so saturating our consciousness that we don’t even know that’s what we’re quoting.
As a final aside, let me note that Biden’s quoting of this song suggests to me that whether or not we think he has an adequate understanding of all aspects of the Catholic faith (and I would say that I think he has at least one or two significant deficits on this count), his adherence to Catholicism is deep and sincere. He could have quoted a hymn that would have been more familiar to Americans (“Amazing Grace” would have been an obvious choice, or “America the Beautiful”), but he quoted one that meant something to him, something imbibed from years of church going. Sincerity isn’t the only thing that matters in the realm of faith, but it’s not nothing.