Catholics, Scripture, and Joe Biden

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.

15 comments

    1. Thank you for pointing this out, Kathleen. I guess Fritz inadvertently managed to prove his own point, that Catholics do not know Scripture that well 🙂

      1. and, I should have added, Fritz also managed to show at the same time that biblical accuracy in every minute detail isn’t ultimately what it’s about, it’s about the Scriptures as alive in our hearts, be it Psalm 91 or 139 — their messages are quite similar, after all: God is there with you, in every mess of your life, and will uphold you

  1. Excellent except for this *cheap* shot – to quote – “….and I would say that I think he has at least one or two significant deficits on this count….. – suggest that this only continues to divide rather than unite. Suggest that politics (vs. faith) creates the differences and misunderstandings around these issues; catholic theology and social justice is *marked* by a both/and approach – not either/or which your biased opinion underlines. We have neither the space or time to drill down on those issues but it is no where near as clear cut as you parse and allege without providing details, explanation, or facts. The last thing as catholics that we need is more cultural wars around these issues. Suggest underlining a better understanding of the role of conscience, public policy, etc.
    But to end on a note of levity – if this president elect can quote from Joncas, some day another public official may quote from Cooney.

  2. Bill, I suppose if we are following the dictionary definition of “cheap shot” as “a critical statement that takes unfair advantage of a known weakness of the target” then that certainly is an accurate description of my remark.

  3. I wrote in the introduction to the last issue of The Yale ISM Review: “Everyone who lives experiences suffering. We all carry wounds, whether they be physical, emotional, or spiritual. Yet faith affirms that ‘there is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole.’ Music and the arts, prayer and worship, can touch our wounds and open the way to healing.” I think President-Elect Biden quoted “On Eagles Wings” both to express his hope for the healing of the nation, and also to sound a note of consolation for those grieving the death of loved ones during the pandemic. The more-than-words quality of the communication is significant, I think, because the music, though unheard in the speech, lives in the memories of his hearers who know the song.

  4. Nice post, Fritz.

    I think Biden knows he was paraphrasing scripture; I don’t see how you can know that hymn and not know the basis for the lyrics – every hymnal I have ever seen contains the notation “Ex 19:4, Ps 91”.

    And, as you note, we as Catholics somewhat systematically are exposed to almost the entire Bible every three years. The idea that we do not ‘know’ the Bible is a relic of pre-Vatican II days. Relics die hard, unfortunately.

    I will say that I am glad he did not try to sing it. 🙂

    1. “we as Catholics somewhat systematically are exposed to almost the entire Bible”
      Unfortunately not yet, most Catholics only attend Mass on Sundays. The use of the OT on Sundays and Major feasts amounts to only 3.7% of verses, with a further 9.8% on weekdays (that is of course not including psalms). Even the NT total for Sundays and major Feasts is only 40.8%.

      1. “Exposed” is valid in that it is not the same thing as “received”, but I get your point. However, whose fault would that be? It is easy enough to do the daily readings, often with relevant reflections, in numerous places right here on the internet or in a variety of print sources. My point was that it is available. Many are called, etc.

  5. “I will say that I am glad he did not try to sing it”

    Obama would have nailed it…

    Biden lost his first wife and one year old child in a car crash years ago. He then raised his remaining children while commuting daily from DC to his home hours away. He recently lost another son, Beau. He’s experienced a lot of personal tragedy. For many, this often results in a loss of faith; clearly this isn’t the case with Biden. He seems rather to have gathered strength and consolation from his faith. He isn’t cynical.

    Some might measure faith by strict adherence to dogma. I think we all fall short in various ways. Biden’s losses have turned him more deeply to his faith, rather than spoiling it. Doubtless he’ll be attacked by some Catholics for certain policy stances that he takes. Good luck waiting for the perfect candidate to emerge. Meanwhile, I’m happy with a man who instinctively and naturally references texts that have brought him consolation in tough times. This shows me a lot.

  6. My suspicion is that he used that song (Psalm) because he has used it before. It is a song of hope and of solace. If I am playing my guitar around the campfire and there are Catholic adults there eating s’mores and singing campfire songs, as the embers dim, some one will inevitably ask “can you play Eagle’s Wings?” Thank you President elect Biden for quoting a hymn from Catholic tradition on Saturday night and….by the way… for going to Mass the following morning with your daughter and your grandson.

  7. The President-elect, like the incumbent, likely has good speech writers who may be active liturgical Christians. As a Lutheran, I know that the paraphrase of Psalm 91 is present often in the Mass. Before I retired, I introduced it to my little Lutheran parish and they loved it, even though one of the matriarchs of the parish pointed out that she heard it at a Catholic funeral……As a cradle Roman Catholic, I remain amazed at how hard Lutherans worked to convince themselves that they were not Catholic. I informed them that we, during the era of the50’s to the 70’s didn’t realize that there were other Christians out there…..I remain astounded at how strong that influence remains in parishes who are dominated by elderly Christians, who still fill that way about Roman Catholicism…..they especially reacted to my characrterization as Evangelical Catholics. God’s peace to all of you!

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