It’s no secret that the Vatican has taken a very dim view of the effort by conservative Catholic bishops in the United States to deny pro-choice politicians like the president access to communion. Just last month, Pope Francis, who has been friendly toward Joe Biden (the second Catholic to be elected president) generally, made it clear he opposed “weaponizing” the Holy Eucharist (as Catholics call communion) in this and any other cases involving political issues.
On Friday, after a 75-minute private audience with the pontiff, Biden came away with a more direct repudiation of the hostile American bishops. The New York Times reports that the president told reporters that Pope Francis called him a “good Catholic” and told him he should keep receiving communion.
The Vatican would not confirm or deny what the Pope said in a “private conversation,” however, and issued a statement that undoubtedly reflected Francis’s belief that the two leaders had other and more important fish to fry:
The Vatican — which did not allow public access to the meeting, citing coronavirus concerns — released heavily edited footage and later said in a statement that, in the private part of the meeting, Francis and Mr. Biden had focused “on the joint commitment to the protection and care of the planet, the health care situation and the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the theme of refugees and assistance to migrants.” It added that the talks had touched on human rights and freedom of religion.
Still, Biden’s take on his status as a believer is consistent with the position Francis has assumed on the idea. And it’s another signal to the bishops, who are expected to publish and discuss a “statement on the meaning of the Eucharist” as early as next month that may include encouragement of discipline against pro-choice Catholic politicians. In some respects, Biden is in the crossfire of an increasingly bitter fight between the Vatican and traditionalists on a wide range of issues, in which American bishops are hardly being submissive:
Cardinal Raymond Burke, whom many allies of Francis see as the de facto leader of the opposition to the pope in the Vatican and the United States, posted a nearly 3,000-word letter on his website before the meeting [between Biden and Francis]. In it, he said that American bishops would soon take up “the long-term and gravely scandalous situation of Catholic politicians who” support abortion rights and receive communion.
It’s very unlikely that any statement by the American bishops will keep Biden’s own bishops and priests in Delaware and Washington from allowing him to attend Mass and receive communion in peace, and the Vatican could veto any big move by the bishops towards excluding pro-choice pols from the sacraments. But in terms of how this controversy is being perceived by Catholic lay-people in the United State, it’s significant that Biden has the Vicar of Christ in his corner.
The president seems to appreciate it, too. He reportedly said to Francis upon leaving the audience: “God love ya!”