There is an intriguing subplot to President Joe Biden’s next meeting with Pope Francis. The world’s two foremost Roman Catholics will celebrate a shared vision of church teaching and vital social issues even as Biden faces steadfast opposition from many American Catholic bishops over his positions on the abortion and LGBTQ rights.
Less than three weeks after Biden’s visit to the Vatican on Friday, US bishops will meet in Baltimore, with one of the agenda items inspired in part by conservatives who argue that Biden’s support for human rights abortion should disqualify him from receiving Communion. While no published material is supposed to mention Biden by name, it is possible that there is a clear message of rebuke.
“It’s far beyond the embarrassment,” said Massimo Faggioli, professor of historical theology at the University of Villanova who recently wrote a book on Biden and Catholicism.
“For some bishops, this is an act of intimidation” towards Biden, Faggioli said. “And they have a Pope who protects a Catholic president’s access to the sacraments – he must have sent a signal from the Vatican saying,” We don’t think that’s wise.
The Pope supports Catholic doctrine opposing abortion and same-sex marriage, but he has angered some conservative Catholics in the United States and elsewhere by emphasizing other issues that align with Biden’s priorities – protecting the environment, fight against racial injustice and poverty, for example.
The Pope and Biden “agree on a lot of issues,” Faggioli said. “But they’re both really under siege, facing very strong headwinds… fighting against different kinds of ideologues.”
Biden is only the second Catholic president of the United States, after John F. Kennedy, and displays his faith openly, often wearing a rosary and regularly attending mass. Devotion dates from childhood; he expressed his gratitude to the nuns who helped him build his confidence as he struggled with stuttering as a schoolboy.
“Wherever there were nuns, there was a house,” he wrote in his 2007 memoir “Promises to keep”. “My idea of myself, of family, of community, of the world at large comes directly from my religion. “
His faith was tested, but not weakened, after his wife and baby daughter were killed in a traffic accident in 1972.
“I never doubted there was a God, but I was angry with God,” he told the Christian Science Monitor in 2007.
In that same interview, Biden explained why he considers himself a faithful Catholic despite his views on abortion.
“My views are totally consistent with Catholic social doctrine,” Biden said. “There are elements within the church that say if you disagree with any of the teachings of the church, you disagree with the church. I think the church is bigger than that.
The papacy of Francis in photos
Francis has already made it clear that he will not avoid US political leaders who support abortion rights. On October 9, he met in the Vatican with Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, whose position on abortion angered the highest Catholic in his hometown of San Francisco, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.
Cordileone urged the US Bishops’ Conference to send a message to Biden, Pelosi and others “that moved them in their conscience.”
“They need to understand the scandal that is caused when they say they are faithfully Catholic and yet oppose the church on such a fundamental concept,” he told The Associated Press in April.
Under Catholic policy, decisions regarding exclusion from communion are left to individual bishops. While Cordileone has discouraged Pelosi from receiving Communion in his Archdiocese, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, has made it clear that Biden is welcome to receive Communion when he attends services there.
Francis, who asked last month whether Biden and like-minded politicians should be denied Communion, avoided a “yes” or “no” answer, saying bishops should serve these people with “compassion and tenderness.” . He warned that clerics should not let politics influence decisions about fellowship.
Abortion is not the only issue between Biden and the American bishops. He is a strong supporter of the Equality Bill, which would extend federal civil rights protections to LGBTQ people nationwide. The bishops say the bill, currently blocked in the Senate, would violate the religious freedom of churches and individuals opposed to same-sex marriage and various policies relating to transgender rights.
The coming week’s meeting will be Biden’s first meeting with Francis since becoming president, but he has met him three times before: first when Francis was inaugurated as Pope in 2013; later during the pontiff’s visit to the United States in 2015; and in 2016, when Biden visited the Vatican for a conference on regenerative medicine, where he spoke about cancer prevention.
François has repeatedly reaffirmed his opposition to abortion in recent weeks, calling the procedure “murder” and defending the right of conscientious objectors to refuse to participate. He likened abortion to “hiring a hitman” to solve a problem.
In the new documentary “Francesco”, Pope Francis approved the authorization of civil unions for same-sex couples, the first time he has publicly addressed the issue since he became Pope in 2013.
Chad Pecknold, professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, doubts the Pope will confront Biden over his support for abortion rights, but said many Catholics – including bishops – might wish that happened .
“I think the Catholic faithful have a right to hope for this and to express their concern for Mr. Biden’s soul,” Pecknold said.
The Biden-Francis visit “might in fact underscore the urgent need to unite around a clear and cohesive vision of how bishops should respond to politicians who publicly disregard Church teaching while standing for election. Holy Communion, ”Pecknold added via email.
Steven Millies, professor of public theology at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said the meeting will affect the abortion and fellowship debate “in a way that produces a lot of heat and very little light.” to discuss the abortion with Biden.
“It’s not going to get anyone anywhere,” Millies said. “On the other hand, there is a lot to be accomplished by focusing on areas of common, concerned and shared interest.
When Kennedy became the first Catholic president in 1960, abortion was not the divisive issue it is today. It wasn’t until 1973 that there was a national right to abortion, and Kennedy felt no pressure to take a public position.
Anti-Catholic prejudices were common during Kennedy’s campaign. Some Protestant ministers questioned whether he could maintain his independence from the Catholic Church.
Unlike Biden, Kennedy enjoyed overwhelming support from Catholic voters, winning about 80 percent of their votes in 1960, according to researchers at Georgetown University. Biden was supported by around half of Catholic voters in the 2020 election.
AP News researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York City contributed to this report.
The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.