Meeting helps president with U.S. bishops

October 29, 2021
President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden and Pope Francis walk as they meet at the Vatican, Friday, Oct. 29, 2021 in this handout photo from the Vatican Media.

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden’s audience with Pope Francis on Friday was a very different moment from the previous meeting between a pope and a Catholic president of the United States.

On July 2, 1963, when John F. Kennedy was received in the Vatican, the 46-year-old president was looking forward to the re-election campaign of 1964. Paul VI had been elected pope a few days before, and the Catholic Church was enjoying an extraordinary honeymoon with world public opinion that was the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

That audience took place in the context of the new relationship between the Catholic Church and the global world, but also a new alliance between the Holy See and the United States from a cultural but also theological point of view. 

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That alliance is now being redefined. Since his election in 2013, Francis has reset the alignment between the Vatican and the Western, liberal political order through the 2018 agreement with the government of the Popular Republic of China, the work to broker new relations within Islam between Sunni and Shia, the support to the radical popular movements in Latin America.

The new geopolitical orientation of the Holy See has left many in U.S. diplomatic circles wondering, irrespective of their domestic political affiliations.

Meeting spotlights strife in the church

Biden’s audience in the Vatican must be seen in the mix between partisan politics and internal strife in the U.S. Catholic Church. This papal audience took place just two weeks before the fall assembly of the conference of U.S. Catholic bishops in Baltimore, which will discuss a document on the Eucharist that some bishops would like to use to exclude pro-choice politicians from receiving communion at Mass.

The Vatican, while maintaining the traditional Catholic teaching on abortion, is trying to protect Biden’s access to the sacraments from the attack of the U.S. bishops. The bishops are trying not just to embarrass President Biden, but to intimidate him.

No matter what happens with the document that the bishops will discuss in Baltimore, the discussion itself has already divided the episcopate in unprecedented ways.

One important thing to remember about the majority of the bishops who would like to sanction Biden is that a good number of them endorsed, or failed to respond to, the extraordinarily serious allegations made by former Papal Nuncio to the U.S. Carlo Maria Viganò, who in August 2018 tried to unseat the pope with unproven accusations and conspiracy theories.

Members of the U.S. episcopate who are trying to exclude Biden from the sacrament of the Eucharist are the same who looked with favor not just at the Trump presidency, but also at what was effectively an attempted coup against Pope Francis.

All this is developing at the same time in which the U.S. Supreme Court, whose conservative majority is dominated by Catholics, could be poised to rule on cases on abortion in a way that could abrogate Roe v. Wade and unleash what Biden called “constitutional chaos.”

Vatican welcomed Biden’s election

Biden’s election last year was welcomed in the Vatican with a huge sigh of relief, after four difficult years of the Trump administration’s unprecedented tensions between the White House and the pope.

But after nine months of the Biden administration, the Vatican is now wondering what kind of promises the second Catholic president can keep, from climate change, immigration, and (especially after the withdrawal from Afghanistan) multilateralism in international relations.

On the other side, it is not clear whether Pope Francis represents the beginning of a new age in the relationship between the papacy and global modernity – a more dialogical and less ideological posture ” or if it is an interlude before the return, with the election of his successor, to a more confrontational approach.

Since Francis’ abdominal surgery in July, discussions about the next conclave have resumed, and the pope himself admitted in an interview that some cardinals are looking forward to replacing him.

The strong opposition coming from the United States against Francis’ papacy could influence the future balance of power in the church at the global level – even before the next conclave.

What is happening among U.S. Catholic leaders could be a prediction for the future of Catholicism. A failure of the pontificate of Francis in delivering Catholicism from the grip of theological fundamentalism and political authoritarianism could be on ominous sign for those who were hoping that the Trump presidency and Trumpian Catholicism were an aberration.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University and author of “Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States.”

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