Biden Visits Pope as U.S. Bishops Weigh Denying the President Communion
(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden visited Pope Francis at the Vatican on Friday, bringing the second U.S. Catholic president face-to-face with a leader he admires even as some church officials at home seek to punish him for his political beliefs.
The two leaders discussed global efforts to counter climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic, the White House said. The connection between them was warm, and there was laughter during the meeting, a White House official said.
Biden and first lady Jill Biden were greeted by Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza, the head of the papal household. “It’s good to be back,” Biden told one of his Vatican greeters. To another, he introduced himself as “Jill’s husband.”
Biden previously met Francis at the Vatican as vice president in 2016.
At the Vatican’s insistence, the meeting was closed to U.S. reporters traveling with the president.
While the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, faced anti-Catholic bias among voters during the 1960 campaign, Biden’s religious difficulties have come from within the church. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has weighed whether to deny him communion over his support of abortion rights, though Biden has long said he personally opposes the procedure.
Biden has said he doubts the American bishops will deny him the sacrament, and the Vatican has cautioned them against the move, arguing that the church should stay out of political matters.
“If we look at the history of the church, we will see that every time the bishops have not managed a problem as pastors, they have taken a political stance on a political problem,” the pope said in September.
Biden and Francis share similar views on fighting climate change and poverty while diverging on issues including abortion and gay rights.
Their previous Vatican meeting, less than a year after Biden’s son Beau died of brain cancer, came with a shared commitment to cancer treatment and research. A photo from that meeting sits behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office alongside pictures of Biden’s family.
Conservative U.S. bishops voted in June to draft guidance on the Eucharist, or holy communion, that could be used as justification to deny the rite to Biden and other liberal politicians. The bishops have indicated the document, which will be considered at a meeting in November, will not mention Biden, though it still could make a clear political statement.
Priests can make their own decisions about denying the Eucharist, as one South Carolina priest did when Biden attended mass at his church while on the campaign trail in 2019.
Biden’s politics and religion are interwoven, developed in middle class industrial communities in his hometowns of Scranton and Wilmington. He has said his faith has helped him through tragedies, including the deaths of his first wife and daughter in a 1972 car accident and Beau Biden’s death in 2015.
Biden wears around his wrist a rosary that belonged to Beau and rarely goes a weekend without attending Mass. He repeats his favorite quotations from liturgy and occasionally makes the sign of the cross for dramatic or comedic effect.
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