The religiously observant Biden is only the second Roman Catholic U.S. president, while Francis is the first pope from the Americas. Francis’s views on economics and globalization, shaped by the experience of the global south, are far removed from the market consensus in Washington or New York.
Both favor robust policies to contain climate change. The core purpose of Biden’s European visit is the Glasgow summit on the climate crisis that opens Sunday. If anything, Francis is to what might be seen as Biden’s left on the issue, having outlined an especially bold vision on the dangers of a warming planet in his encyclical, Laudato Si’.
But what would astonish — and mystify — earlier generations of U.S. Catholics is the extent to which a pope is far more sympathetic to a Catholic president than are many American bishops — and that Biden’s most ardent detractors among Catholics are, in many cases, open critics of Francis.
The turmoil says a lot about Francis and also speaks to the impact that political polarization has had on the U.S. church — specifically over whether opposition to abortion should dominate the church’s public mission.
At issue is not abortion itself. The pope strongly opposes abortion, and so, too, do the more liberal American bishops who have resisted denying Biden Communion because of the president’s support for abortion rights.
Yet the U.S. hierarchy is almost alone among church leadership bodies around the world in casting abortion as not simply a critical question but what the U.S. bishops have called “our preeminent priority.” This emphasis says at least as much about the increasing power of the right in Christian circles as it does about theology.
This relentless focus flies in the face of Francis’s effort to lift up care for the world’s poorest people, including immigrants, and for Earth itself as Christian priorities central to an ethic of life.
The contrast has pitted American bishops close to the pope — among them Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego — against others in the bishops’ conference who have argued for denying Biden Communion. A majority of bishops appear to have backed off this threat, though the issue could reemerge next month when the hierarchy meets to discuss a document on the Eucharist.
Last month, Francis weighed in indirectly on Biden’s side. He said that bishops should minister with “compassion and tenderness” and “not go condemning, condemning.” Communion, he said, “is not a prize for the perfect.”
Francis has also been increasingly vocal in taking on the American Catholic right. In September, he criticized the Eternal Word Television Network without naming it (he referred to EWTN as “a large Catholic television channel”) for having “no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope,” and adding: “They are the work of the devil.”
One of the pope’s frequent critics, retired Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, shot back against “vindictive and false” criticisms of EWTN in an essay that also criticized Biden.
Oh, yes, and Francis granted a private audience to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this month even though her home archbishop, Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, had said not two weeks earlier that public figures who support abortion rights should be denied Communion. The archbishop urged Catholics to pray for Pelosi to undergo a “conversion of heart.”
John Carr, founder of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University (where I teach), argues that it is no surprise Biden and Francis share some of the same adversaries. Francis’s “bottom-up” and Biden’s “middle-out” perspectives, he said, both “threaten people with ecclesial, political and economic power.”
Many of Biden’s Catholic allies “are disappointed with his Democratic orthodoxy on abortion but nonetheless believe that many of his policies will advance the common good,” Carr added.
No one should expect this backstory of church conflict to shape the public choreography of Biden’s encounter with the pope. It’s certainly possible that Francis will discuss abortion with the most prominent member of his American flock, but it’s just as likely that he’ll push Biden to do more on climate, and much more to assist poor nations, particularly with coronavirus vaccinations.
For American Catholics, however, the meeting will underscore how out of step many of their leaders are with the man whose titles include Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.