It is pointlessly cruel to criticize Massimo Faggioli. The Italian theologian and professor at Villanova University is better understood as a performer: the Roberto Benigni of religious studies — a manic master of misunderstanding.
And how well he plies his trade. Several years ago, Faggioli wrote a column entitled “Why I call myself a ‘Gelateria Catholic’ ” to rehabilitate the old slur “Cafeteria Catholic.” But it contained a fatal flaw. Throughout, Faggioli labored under the impression that a cafeteria is simply a coffee shop, and not a place to get a buffet lunch. The result was a bizarre verbal trainwreck that made this reader wonder if the professor spoke much English at all.
Faggioli seems to have learned much since then. For his latest effort, Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, written in Italian late last year, he employed a translator to retool his thoughts for Americans. The result is no less hilarious. Now, instead of Faggioli’s unvarnished ephithets, we get what I can only imagine is an attempt to save the work from its creator.
The book, of course, is little more than hagiography for the new president. Faggioli kicks it off with a proclamation that Biden’s tenure will have “religious, even salvific” implications for the United States. He makes much of Biden’s personal faith: his rosaries, his devotion to Saint Francis, that time he referenced the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings.” Pretty standard propaganda, right down to the excuses Faggioli makes for Biden’s positions on abortion.
Where Joe Biden really gets interesting, though, is in the margins. Faggioli’s translator is something of a literalist, paying as little attention to American usage as Faggioli did when he wrote that gelateria column. He consistently leaves intact Faggioli’s phrase “the Catholic Biden” (a cognomen he also bestows on the Catholic Kerry and the Catholic Kennedy), comically reminiscent of a leaked tape of Melania Trump ranting about “the Christmas.”
Sometimes the tone-deaf translation makes Faggioli leap into the outer reaches of Fellini-esque excess. Biden at one point receives the nickname “the Comforter.” Then he’s a prophet, “a stutterer like Moses.”
And, the coup de grâce: “Biden is a son of the people of God,” Faggioli declares, “and his election can be interpreted as the rejection of a political culture which, in Pope Francis’s words, ‘often consigns the fate of entire peoples to the grasp of small but powerful groups.’ ”
There is not a hint of irony in this statement. Faggioli is not capable of irony, only absurdism.
Here he is on the character of Biden’s faith: “It is a non-intellectual Catholicism, but it is not anti-intellectual. It is a popular faith, with pop culture overtones — more Stephen Colbert and Bruce Springsteen than Jacques Maritain and Thomas Merton.”
And here he is on the mysterious connection between Francis and Biden’s old boss: “Obama and Francis, two believers who share common past experiences as ‘community organizers,’ represent a challenge to the clerical and European soul (of Irish, Italian, and Polish descent) of the Catholic Church in the U.S.”
And — my personal favorite — here’s Faggioli weighing in on the next generation of Catholics: “If there is anyone who represents the future of U.S. Catholicism more accurately, it is House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”
I could go on with this list, but I might end up reproducing the entire book. Faggioli concocts all sorts of errant hilarities. He compares Biden to “the most famous president in entertainment history, the fictional Jed Bartlet of The West Wing.” He rags on anonymous “neoconservative” American bishops, whom he accuses of enslavement to the Republican Party. And he puzzles in a footnote over why Barack Obama enjoyed one of his nemeses’ books.
But behind Faggioli’s overly earnest praise for Uncle Joe lurks the terror that this 78-year-old champion represents only a temporary victory for his “emancipated and pious” brand of faith. Faggioli warns of dark forces seeking to destroy the president: a return to pre–Vatican II traditions culminating in “a neofundamentalism whose prophet is Carl Schmitt.”
Faggioli declines to explain, but this is no doubt a reference to integralism — an ever-evolving and almost exclusively online right-wing Catholic body of thought. It is unlikely that Biden has ever heard of integralism, just as it is unlikely that he consciously chooses to attend the Novus Ordo over the Latin Mass, as Faggioli purports. In fact, it is unlikely that Biden does much of anything consciously.
No matter. Faggioli has a narrative laid out for Biden, even if it only makes sense to him.
“Biden is one of those believers for whom public life is no mere theater, religion is not a set of rules, and paradoxical aspects of Catholicism cannot be solved mathematically with the juridical ‘either-or’ Catholicism of the ‘culture warriors,’ ” Faggioli concludes. “Biden transcends all that and won’t fit into any of their boxes. This synthesis is an opportunity for the country and the Church as they begin a new era in U.S. political and ecclesial life.”
What synthesis? What opportunity? It doesn’t matter — who cares? Shine on, you Maximum Beans.