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Meeting between Francis and Biden will highlight their rift with American bishops


Pope Francis at the Vatican on Monday. Each visit by an American president has marked a distinct phase not only of his papacy, but also of the political upheaval in the United States and in its Catholic church.

By Jason Horowitz


When Joe Biden visits the Vatican on Friday, he will be the third U.S. president Francis has met since becoming pope in 2013. Each has marked a distinct phase not only of his papacy, but also of the political upheaval in the United States and in its Roman Catholic church.


President Barack Obama shared Francis’ global magnetism, celebrity wattage and a focus on immigrants, climate change and the poor. President Donald Trump, whose Christianity Francis once questioned for his anti-immigrant policies, ushered in a populist era that helped sideline Francis.


Now Biden, a Catholic who rarely misses Sunday Mass, arrives at a moment when the political polarization in America has seeped deeply into its Catholic church. The president and pope, who share common ground on many issues, have become common targets of powerful conservative American bishops seeking to undercut them.


The most hostile among them, appointed by Francis’ conservative predecessors, have either ignored or resisted the pope’s efforts to reorient the priorities of the church toward inclusion and social justice, and away from culture war issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights.


They have amplified their critiques of both men through a conservative Catholic media constellation that is Trump-friendly. Despite a clear warning from the Vatican, they have pursued an effort to deny Holy Communion to Roman Catholic politicians supportive of abortion rights — including Biden.


Even from Rome, the enmity is hard to miss.


“He is aware of the hostility,” said Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and close ally of Francis, adding, “It’s a matter of fact.”


Vatican officials and experts said they doubted that the antagonism of American bishops would come up in the private audience between Francis and Biden, and that they would instead talk about issues like addressing climate change, caring for the poor and ending the pandemic. Francis is likely to press the president to ramp up coronavirus vaccine distribution to the developing world, and he rarely misses the chance to speak out against arms dealing and the consequences of war.


Yet factions left and right will be studying the meeting for any clue that the pope is providing political cover to the first Catholic U.S. president since John F. Kennedy against the conservative culture warriors in their church. The pope has been careful not to give political ammunition, either way, when he has been asked about the issue directly. Instead, he has sought to avoid partisan politics.


Asked about the effort to deny Biden communion, he told reporters on a papal flight in September that “I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone,” though he added that he did not know of any instance when such a politician had come to him for communion.


Francis considers the politicization, and weaponization, of the Eucharist disastrous for the church and its ability to remain above the secular fray. The Vatican has noted that Biden’s bishop, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, who was appointed by Francis, has said he will not deny the president communion.


Francis clearly has avid backers in the United States, especially among the bishops and cardinals he has appointed. But among American bishops, his appointees and allies are not a majority, and Vatican officials have worried that movement by a majority of Catholic bishops against a Catholic president and other top Catholic officeholders in the United States could set a dangerous precedent.


For years now, Francis and top Vatican officials have identified the opposition to this pontificate as coming largely from conservatives in the United States. Francis has called it “an honor that the Americans attack me.” He has said “I’m not scared” about the prospect of a schism with dissenters in the American church.


But Francis has apparently grown frustrated in recent months with the hostile corners of the American church and their media megaphone. The American Catholic television network, EWTN, is arguably the world’s largest, and its biggest star, Raymond Arroyo, a favorite of Trump, has frequently hosted guests hostile to Francis and Biden.


EWTN owns an array of English-language Catholic outlets that are popular with American bishops and many American churchgoers, and which have featured Carlo Maria Viganò, the rogue archbishop and former papal envoy to the United States who has called for the pope’s resignation.


EWTN and the country’s conservative bishops have hardly been enthusiastic about Francis’ message and agenda. Last week, a report in the National Catholic Reporter showed that columns and newsletters by United States bishops had largely ignored Francis’ calls for action against climate change.


“The bishops are sending an unambiguous message,” said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University theology professor and author of “Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States.” “We don’t care what Pope Francis says or does.”


Faggioli argued that Francis was trying to save American bishops from the “self-destruction” of politicization, but that they were ignoring him and viewed both Biden and the pope as threats to their side of the culture wars over abortion and gay rights.


The meeting with Francis will not be Biden’s first. As vice president, Biden accompanied Francis on several stops during the pope’s trip to the United States in 2015. The pope personally consoled the Biden family on the then fresh loss of Biden’s son Beau.


Biden, educated by nuns in Catholic school, has said he had contemplated entering the priesthood several times, and once said he would “shove my rosary” down the throat of the next Republican who challenged his faith.


He met Pope John Paul II as a young senator and had a long sit-down meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, in which they discussed Catholic doctrine, especially on politically divisive issues such as abortion. “And by the way, he wasn’t judgmental. He was open. I came away enlivened from the discussion,” he told America magazine in 2015.


But clearly it was Francis who spoke to him most. “I am,” he said, “so excited about this pope.”

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