Pope Francis met with Joe Biden on Friday. It’s always a boost for a world leader to be snapped smiling with the Pope. But for Biden, who flashes rosary beads during stump speeches and has a habit of crossing himself when talking about his political opponents, the visit may have involved a presidential fib.
Since Inauguration Day, Biden has been locked in a dispute with America’s Catholic bishops over his public support for abortion — a position which developed in curious tandem with his rise up the Democratic ticket during the last election cycle, even while B-roll of him hugging nuns played in his campaign ads.
Some of the bishops want old Uncle Joe to be denied Communion when he goes to church on Sunday, pointing out that Catholic teaching calls public support for abortion a grave sin, and taking communion in a state of sin a graver one still. Others think this is playing politics with the Mass and want the president and his policies left well alone.
What to do about Biden has been the subject of months of back and forth between the US bishops and Rome, including a visit by their top brass to see Francis just a few weeks ago.
On Friday, the world’s most famous Catholic layman spent more than an hour with the Pope, talking about a range of issues of common concern — the pandemic, climate change, refugees and migrants.
Abortion was definitely not on the official agenda, and one can understand why. The Pope hasn’t exactly been shy about his position, repeatedly likening abortion to contract murder and Nazi eugenics.
He also, just weeks ago, seemed to say fairly explicitly that Catholic pro-abortion politicians were out of communion with the Church, and off limits for Communion in churches.
But he’s also been clear that he doesn’t go for publicly naming and shaming individuals, and what to do with any given president is best left up to private discussions with their local pastors. Biden’s local bishop in Washington has been emphatic that he wouldn’t deny him communion, whatever his colleagues might want.
What the Vatican didn’t want, above all else, was to have the president’s visit derailed by questions about abortion and Communion. But that’s exactly what they got.
Despite banning customary press access to the meet-and-greet gift exchange portion of the audience — only Vatican cameras were allowed — Biden emerged from his chat with the Pope to the predictable volley of press pool questions.
Had abortion come up, even though it was off the agenda? No, he said. Well, yes it did, but only for the Pope to affirm what a “good Catholic” he is and to tell him to keep taking Communion.
Biden’s claim that Francis weighed right in to settle the most contentious issue in American Catholicism is big, if true, as they say.
It’s a fairly big “if,” of course. Anyone familiar with Biden’s assessment of the withdrawal from Afghanistan might conclude that Francis could have handed him a bull of excommunication for all we know. And it’s at least unlikely that Francis would choose to be this blunt with Biden and not with his own bishops, with whom he could have privately settled the matter at any point over the last year and avoided a messy fight among them.
But even if recollections do differ between Francis and the president, we’ll never know: the pope — this pope or any pope — doesn’t talk about private conversations, full stop. And if the whole mess is one the Vatican would have just as soon sidestepped, Biden’s comments painting the Pope as having weighed in on the American culture wars isn’t much likely to disturb the papal peace of mind.
Meanwhile, liberal bishops back in the US will take Biden at his word and his quotes to every argument they have with their conservative peers, while Biden can claim an effective papal endorsement for his presidency. It’s a perversely political outcome, given the pope’s stated preference for bishops to stay out of politics.