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Joseph Biden: a frank and abiding faith

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In junior high school, Biden considered, briefly, entering a seminary in Baltimore to become a priest. His mother had other ideas. "I told him: 'Wait until you start dating girls, then go,' " said Mrs. Biden, in a brief conversation after a speech her son gave at the National Press Club Aug. 1. Biden later confirmed the incident. "I can't believe she told you that," he says. "My mother thought I had to experience life first, and she was right."

Child of Vatican II

Biden was one of the first Catholic politicians of the Vatican II generation. From 1962 to 1965, the Vatican Council II produced documents that opened the door to ecumenical dialogue, freedom of religion and conscience, and greater involvement of the laity in affairs of the church, including saying the mass in English and more emphasis on individual Bible study.

"I was raised at a time when the Catholic Church was fertile with new ideas and open discussion about some of the basic social teaching of the Catholic Church," Biden says. "Questioning was not criticized; it was encouraged."

He recalls a question in a ninth-grade theology class at Archmere. "How many of you questioned the doctrine of transubstantiation?" the teacher asked, referring to the teaching that the bread and wine change into the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist. No hands were raised. Finally, Biden raised his. "Well, we have one bright man, at least," the teacher said.

The teacher didn't say criticizing the church was good. "He led me to see that if you cannot defend your faith to reason, then you have a problem," Biden says.

Church in public life

As a US senator – one of the youngest ever to be elected – Biden was forced into quick decisions on how closely to follow church teachings in his votes and daily life.

First was a family crisis. After a surprise upset victory to win his Senate seat in November 1972, Biden lost his wife, Neilia, and baby daughter, Naomi, in a traffic accident the week before Christmas. His sons, Beau and Hunter, were badly injured. He considered resigning but was persuaded by the Senate majority leader to give it six months. Colleagues urged him to bury himself in work. Gradually, he did.

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