Joe Biden: A Good Works Catholic

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“You do not make a habit of blowing your own horn or celebrating the defeat of your adversaries. You do Good Works, and then you do more Good Works. You do this because your soul commands you to do so. You do so because it is fundamental to your faith, and for a Scranton, Pennsylvania Irish-Catholic, that faith is as crucial a linchpin to one’s identity as knowing all the words to ‘The Irish Rover’ at the bar on Friday night.”—Michael Tallon

Fairly Unbalanced

By Michael Tallon

File:President Joe Biden with Pope Francis.jpg
President Biden with Pope Francis. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons.)

Editor’s Note: In the first months of the Biden administration, back in 2021, “the scandal of the moment” drew fuel from President Biden’s reluctance to hog the limelight. Here was Columnist Michael Tallon’s take at the time. As we enter the 2024 election season, his words are worth revisiting.

“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.”—Matthew 6:5 KJV

Claire Bateman

ANTIGUA Guatemala—(Hubris)—April 2024—The elemental construct of the post-Trumpian world is now before us, and the contrasts are stark: We Democrats wish to govern and improve the lives of the vast majority of people so as to justify the continuation of our reign. Republicans, on the other hand, hope to stoke a culture war of sufficient volatility so that—once their dark messiah returns from the fetid swamplands—he can reap the political winds and return them to positions of authority. Only time will tell which strategy will find purchase with the electorate. 

There is another front to this war, too. To wit: Who will be allowed to participate in the political process. Republicans wish to limit the franchise to maximize their chances of success. Democrats wish to ease restrictions on voting so as to maximize theirs. But beneath these grand battles, there is a lot of noise, and lately a skirmish has developed over “The Silence of Joe Biden.” 

—Biden hasnt given a press conference. 

—Biden hasnt addressed Congress. 

—Biden hasnt commented directly on the surging number of migrants at the border. 

—At Axios today, even Jonathan Swan—a serious and thoughtful journalist—claims that Biden has been “conspicuously silent” on the growing Andrew Cuomo scandal in New York.

Part of this, obviously, is that reporters need access to policymakers, and when they dont get it, they fret. In time, that fretting becomes a story in and of itself. Soon, theres a buzz. A question. A scandal of its own! 

But Ive got another theory on Joes reticence to hog the limelight, and its really simple: Biden is, honest to God, a real Catholic. 

As a society, we have become so inured to performative, insincere religiosity from our leaders, that its hard to even recognize what a humble, faithful person looks like—or acts like. Donald Trump with his upside-down bible was a crass example, but hes not the only one. I dont doubt that Barack Obama enjoyed the communality and spirit of Reverend Wrights United Church of Christ in Chicago, but I am 100 percent sure that if you drilled down on his faith in scripture, and fear of everlasting damnation in the fiery pits of hell, youd find more doubt than conviction. 

Maybe George Bush and his crew really were Born Again, but youd be hard-pressed to find the Blood of the Lamb anywhere in his response to Hurricane Katrina or the Neoconservative horror-show of his foreign policy. And Bill Clinton? Ha. Lets get real. 

But Joe Biden might be that most elusive of political leaders—a real and true man of faith. Its hard to fathom, as weve not had one in office since Jimmy Carter, and he got turfed out of office after one term in favor of a guy who consulted astrologers, and only knew the bible as so many lines he had to rehearse before donning the role of Gentle, but Firm Father. 

Even more than just being a man of faith, Biden is Scranton, Pennsylvania, Irish-Catholic. I know the type, as I grew up 60 miles north in a similar milieu. Hes older than I, but that just means that Biden is of the generation that would have been providing my instruction while I was training to be an altar boy. 

The “elders” in my church, though we didnt call them that, tended to break into two camps. There were the pre-Vatican II traditionalists who reluctantly embraced the modernization of the faith, and there were those who drifted a whole lot closer to the Liberation Theology of Bishop Romero, and—ultimately—Pope Francis. Oh, and most of the Irish ones had a healthy dose of Bobby Sands revolutionary in their hearts, too. Im convinced that Biden was in that second group, and so also took deeply to heart the Catholic teaching of Good Works. 

Image 2. Caption: Father Michael Bassano MM, at a UN Protection of Civilians Camp by the White Nile in South Sudan. Photo: The Catholic Sun.)
Father Michael Bassano MM, at a UN Protection of Civilians Camp by the White Nile in South Sudan. Photo: The Catholic Sun.)

Theres a bit of a theological morass we could drop into here, but well avoid that with the simple observation that one of the key difference between Catholicism and the Protestant Sects, is that Catholics do not believe that a soul can be saved by faith alone. Yes, they adhere to the belief that Christ, freely accepted as the Savior, is a requirement of admittance to Heaven—but thats not enough. Catholics must also do Good Works. 

When I was regularly attending St. Thomas Aquinas church on Binghamtons West Side, my favorite priest, Father Mike Bassano (who, himself, later became a Liberation Theologian working in Central America, Southeast Asia, and Africa) would often come back to Matthew 6:5, as teaching tool: “When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.”

That sort of stuff, to Father Mike, must be avoided at all costs. Prayer to people like him—to Catholics like him—is a private thing. To be boastful of your faith was a sin. To do so, was, as Ecclesiastes said, just vanity. Rather, the public face of your Christianity—of your Catholicism—is exclusively your Good Works. You do not make a habit of blowing your own horn, or celebrating the defeat of your adversaries. You do Good Works, and then you do more Good Works. You do this because your soul commands you to do so. You do so, because it is fundamental to your faith, and for a Scranton, Pennsylvania, Irish-Catholic, that faith is as crucial a linchpin to ones identity, as is knowing all the words to The Irish Rover* at the bar on Friday night. 

Joe Biden will, certainly, make a speech to Congress soon. Hell do a press conference, and he will likely even give Jonathan Swan an interview—but his relative silence now has, in my opinion, a deeper reason behind it. He has just stepped onto center stage. He has accepted the mantle of a Good Works Catholic, and carried them into the Oval Office. This is the position he has sought for a lifetime, and now it is here. 

That his inclination is to do the work of helping others, rather than charging into the glare of the television lights, should be celebrated. I get that the GOP has to whine about something, and the press needs to howl about access—but a relatively silent and humble leader isn’t a bad thing. At least not according to the Catholic Faith.

Fr. Michael Bassano MM, Reflections on Mission
Fr. Michael Bassano MM, Reflections on Mission.

The Late Late Show Tribute to The Dubliners, March 1987. This is the first performance of their hit single, The Irish Rover, which reached Number 8 in the UK singles charts. 
The Late Late Show Tribute to The Dubliners, March 1987. This is the first performance of their hit single, The Irish Rover, which reached Number 8 in the UK singles charts.

*“The Irish Rover” 

A-one, two
One, two, three

On the fourth of July 1806/We set sail from the sweet Cove of Cork./We were sailing away with a cargo of bricks/For the Grand City Hall in New York.

‘Twas a wonderful craft, she was rigged fore and aft/And oh, how the wild wind drove her./She stood several blasts, she had 27 masts/And they called her The Irish Rover.

We had one million bags of the best Sligo rags;/We had two million barrels of stone;/We had three million sides of old blind horses’ hides;/We had four million barrels of bones;

We had five million hogs and six million dogs;/Seven million barrels of porter./We had eight million bales of old nanny goats’ tails/In the hold of The Irish Rover.

There was awl Mickey Coote who played hard on his flute/When the ladies lined up for a set./He was tootin’ with skill for each sparkling quadrille/Though the dancers were fluther’d and bet.

With his smart witty talk, he was cock of the walk/And he rolled the dames under and over./They all knew at a glance when he took up his stance/That he sailed in The Irish Rover.

There was Barney McGee from the banks of the Lee,/There was Hogan from County Tyrone,/There was Johnny McGurk who was scared stiff of work/And a man from Westmeath called Malone.

There was Slugger O’Toole, who was drunk as a rule,/And fighting Bill Treacy from Dover,/And your man, Mick MacCann from the banks of the Bann/Was the skipper of The Irish Rover.

For a sailor, it’s always a bother in life,/It’s so lonesome by night and by day,/That he longs for the shore and a charming young whore/Who will melt all his troubles away.

Oh, the noise and the rout swillin’ poitin and stout/For him soon the torment’s over;/Of the love of a maid, he is never afraid/An old salt from The Irish Rover.

We had sailed seven years when the measles broke out/And the ship lost its way in the fog,/And that whale of a crew was reduced down to two,/Just myself and the Captain’s old dog.

Then the ship struck a rock: Oh Lord, what a shock!/The bulkhead was turned right over;/Turned nine times around and the poor old dog was drowned/And I’m the last of The Irish Rover.

Editor’s Note: Before you go, here’s a wonderful PostScript to this column: Michael Tallon reading his own poem, “Of God, the Publican, I Beg.”

Michael Tallon: “Mom dropped a note earlier today asking for a recitation of this poem I wrote many years ago for our friend, John Fitzie Fitzgibbons. It’s called, Of God, the Publican, I Beg, and the set-up is me having a pint with The Almighty, taking Him a bit to task for stealing Fitz away from us. When I wrote it, and when I first recited it at his (after-hours) wake, there was an edge to it—an anger. I was furious with God for being such a bastard, for doing something as cruel as ripping my brother from my arms. But a lot of years have passed since then, and while I still miss Fitzie like the blazes, as I do so many brothers and sisters taken too soon from then until now, my opinion on God has changed.

“I’ve never really been much of a believer, with the exception of times like now when a Creator is a convenient foil for art. Yet, still, my beliefs continue to evolve. These days, when I imagine a God that I’ve never really had much faith in, I don’t see Him, or Her, or Them as icon of perfection. I don’t imagine some omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent judge in the sky. Rather, I picture someone a lot like us—wildly imperfect, prone to screwing up, but trying their best.

“You know, as if we really were made in God’s image.

“In any case, here’s a late Padraig’s Day poem for you, sent, of course, with love to you all.”


Michael Tallon is a freelance writer from the United States, currently living and working in Antigua, Guatemala. He recently completed his first book, Incompatible With Life: A Memoir of Grave Illness, Great Love, and Survival, which details his struggles against the rare genetic iron-processing disorder, Hereditary Hemochromatosis. Please visit his website, where you can read the introduction to Incompatible With Life, along with other essays and articles. (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)


  • jerry zimmeman

    Michael, thank you for your wondrous poem and deep-into-one’s-soul recitation, leaving me with tears in my eyes and a shine in my heart.
    Sweetly berating God is a delicate and necessary matter….

    • Michael John Tallon

      Many years ago, I was having dinner with a dear friend and former student whose childhood was scarred and brutal. His mother had to flee San Salvador with the children after war-related brutalities became too much. The father abandoned the kids. They ended up in Brooklyn to face more hardship and loss. Through an innate artistic talent, focus, and a good bit of luck, he got into the Fashion Institute in NYC and has been, in his adulthood, a dedicated father, provider, husband, and guiding light. He’s such a beautiful man, such a dear friend, and such a wise soul.

      At that dinner, we had a moment when our roles were reversed. I was struggling with my career, my path, and a good bit of despair. It was a “why me?” moment, and it came with some deep angst and anger at all creation.

      Edwing, my friend, lovingly suggested I cut the universe some slack. “God’s not perfect,” he said.

      It was the simplest, most compassionate, and wisest observation he could have made in the moment.

      If we’re made in God’s image, then surely he/she/they/it makes dreadful mistakes all the time – but are trying their best, just like the rest of us. Perhaps the lesson is that love and forgiveness need to travel the world, always, hand in hand.

      Thanks for reading and dropping a note, Jerry. Really pleased to make your acquaintance.