Biden visits Pope Francis amid political controversy over communion

Throughout President Biden’s life, his religion has been a refuge. He fingers a rosary during moments of stress and often attends Mass at the church in Delaware where his son Beau is buried.

But as Biden and Pope Francis prepared for a tete-a-tete Friday at the Vatican — the president’s first stop while traveling in Europe for two international summits — both the flocks they lead, the American people and the Roman Catholic Church, are beset by divisions and contradictions that at times seem irreconcilable.

For the record:

4:56 a.m. Oct. 29, 2021A previous version of this story misstated the day of President Biden and Pope Francis’ meeting. The two leaders met Friday, not Thursday.

“They preside over fractured communities,” said Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor at Villanova University who wrote a book about Biden and Catholicism. “They face situations with many similarities.”

The two leaders met for 90 minutes early Friday afternoon, according to the White House, which was longer than expected. Afterwards, they were joined by an array of Vatican and U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, national security advisor Jake Sullivan and senior advisor Michael Donilon. First Lady Jill Biden also attended.

The news media were not allowed into the meeting or to catch even a glimpse of Biden and Francis together. The White House released a photo of the two men and said the president “thanked His Holiness for his advocacy for the world’s poor and those suffering from hunger, conflict and persecution.” Biden also praised Francis’ advocacy for fighting climate change, the focus of a United Nations summit that begins this weekend in Glasgow, Scotland.

The political and the spiritual realms have overlapped for the two men when it comes to the practice of communion, the ritual where a priest consecrates bread and wine and then shares it with parishioners.

Conservative Catholic bishops in the United States are arguing that political leaders who support abortion rights should not receive communion, an issue slated for debate during an upcoming episcopal meeting in Baltimore. Because the proposal gained steam after Biden’s election, it’s been viewed as a rebuke of the president.

The controversy reflects an internal debate over whether the Catholic Church should broaden its appeal or adhere more strictly to its core tenets. George Weigel, a distinguished senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, said some people “claim to be Catholic and yet want to turn Catholicism into a version of liberal Protestantism.”

“What the bishops are discussing is whether Catholic political leaders who are not in full communion with the church because they act in ways that contradict settled Catholic teaching should have the integrity not to present themselves for holy communion,” he said.

The Vatican, however, has been wary of a debate that mixes politics and one of the church’s holiest rituals. Francis said last month that he has “never refused the eucharist to anyone.” Since becoming pope eight years ago, he has sought to distance himself from divisive topics like same-sex marriage while focusing on more ecumenical issues.

John K. White, professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, said the pope’s meeting with Biden “sends a message to the American bishops that denying communion is not something that he approves of.”

Before Biden left for Europe, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said abortion would not be the focus of their meeting.

“There is a great deal of agreement and overlap with the president and Pope Francis on a range of issues — poverty, combating the climate crisis, ending the COVID-19 pandemic,” she told reporters. “These are all hugely important, impactful issues that will be the centerpiece of what their discussion is when they meet.”

Biden and Francis have met several times before, starting with a brief encounter when Biden, then vice president, attended Francis’ papal inauguration in 2013.

President Biden leaving a church in Wilmington, Del.

Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden leaves a church in Wilmington, Del., last year after attending a confirmation Mass for his granddaughter.

(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Two years later, Biden welcomed Francis to the U.S. and brought his family to a private meeting with him shortly after Beau died.

“I wish every grieving parent, brother or sister, mother or father would have had the benefit of his words, his prayers, his presence,” Biden said the following year during a visit to the Vatican, where he met Francis again.

Biden is only the second Catholic president after John F. Kennedy, who was elected in 1960. At that time, the church was still viewed with suspicion by some Americans, and Kennedy assured voters that he believed in the separation of church and state — another way of saying that he would follow the Constitution, not the pope, while in office.

Now, Catholics are represented in the highest levels of American public life. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, is Catholic, as is one of her predecessors, John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio. The majority of Supreme Court justices are Catholic.

Biden keeps a photo of him with Francis in the Oval Office among an assortment of family photos.

The president attends Mass once a week, even when traveling. He made a point of visiting a church during a 2001 trip to China while he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“I’m going to be there on a Sunday — can I go to church somewhere?” Biden said, according to Frank Januzzi, one of the future president’s staff members at the time.

Although there were large Catholic churches in Beijing where Biden could have attended Mass, he ultimately visited what Januzzi described as a “tiny, hole-in-the-wall” parish in a village outside the Chinese capital. Biden took communion from an elderly priest there.

“This was an opportunity to make a statement about the importance of freedom of religion and demonstrate his own faith as well,” said Januzzi, who now leads the Mansfield Foundation, an organization dedicated to fostering U.S.-Asia relations.

White, the professor at the Catholic University of America, recalled attending Mass at a church in Bethesda, Md., in 2015 when Biden and his wife slipped in. It was unexpected, because it was not Biden’s usual parish, but Beau was hospitalized nearby with brain cancer and was near death.

Even from a distance, White said, “You could tell they were in distress.” They received communion and exchanged the sign of peace — when parishioners shake hands and exchange greetings — and left.

“It wasn’t like he was there to shake a lot of hands,” said White, who later worked on Catholic outreach for Biden’s 2020 campaign. “It wasn’t about that at all.”

Beau’s death was one of the tragedies that have shaped Biden’s life. In 1972, his first wife and daughter were killed in a car accident shortly after he was first elected to the Senate.

“When people have tragedy, sometimes their faith goes away, or is forged in steel,” White said. “All the tragedies that have beset Biden have reinforced his faith and who he is.”

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