Vice President Joe Biden, at age 30, was sworn in for the first time as a U.S. Senator on Jan. 5, 1973, at the Wilmington, Delaware, hospital bedside of his 3-year-old son Beau who, with his older brother Hunter, had been injured in the automobile accident that took the lives of their mother and younger sister.
I have a clear memory of Biden saying on that occasion to a radio interviewer something to the effect that “I’m going to give this a six-month trial and if I find that this new responsibility makes it impossible for me to be a father to these boys, I’ll resign.”
And that commitment launched a history of ridership on Amtrak between Washington and Wilmington, enabling the young senator to share daily time together with his sons during their growing-up years. Admirable, to say the least.
Similarly, Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin specified a deal-breaking condition when the House of Representatives turned to him with a plea to succeed John Boehner as Speaker of the House. He would not sacrifice weekend time in Wisconsin with his wife and three children in order to meet the time and travel demands of the speakership. Family first. Again, admirable.
Ryan’s decision in the face of warring factions in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives was prompted by other considerations as well, but being home with the family was front and center.
Both Biden and Ryan are Catholics. Whether their Catholic convictions and culture had anything to do with shaping their commitment to the preservation of family unity, I cannot say. But the fact is that the common ground between them — commitment to family unity — is sacred ground.
By happy coincidence, the recent Biden and Ryan decisions (not to seek the presidential nomination in Biden’s case, and to stand for election as speaker in Ryan’s case) were taking shape while the World Meeting of Families took place in Philadelphia and the early autumn world Synod of Bishops on the family took place in Rome.
The synod’s final report is now in the hands of Pope Francis. He, after prayer and reflection, will soon formally speak to the whole Catholic world about what he sees as pressing contemporary issues related to marriage and family. It will be easier for ordinary Catholics to understand whatever he has to say about family by pondering what both Biden and Ryan have already said by the choices they made.
Biden’s family-first commitment was originally evident in 1973; his 2015 decision not to run was, he said, based on judgment that he could not win but also on a desire to be a good pop to his grandchildren, including the two who became fatherless due to the untimely death of Beau on May 30, 2015.
I cannot predict what Pope Francis will say, but I expect him to say something about marriage as a vocation to the service of life and that this is a call to be responded to in freedom involving a commitment to permanence, fidelity and openness to procreation. And I would not be at all surprised if he has something good to say about the role of grandparents in family life.
Joe Biden will understand. So will Paul Ryan.
Jesuit Father William J. Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.