Biden, the United States’ second Catholic president, has been at the center of a debate within the Catholic Church about whether he should be able to receive Communion because of his support for abortion rights.
First lady Jill Biden will join her husband in meeting Francis. Biden will already be traveling to Rome for the Group of 20 summit, hosted by Italy. His meeting with the pope had been widely anticipated.
The White House also confirmed publicly for the first time Thursday that Biden will attend the United Nations’ climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, after his Italy stop. As first reported by CNN, 12 Biden Cabinet members and senior administration officials — including climate envoy John F. Kerry and national climate adviser Gina McCarthy — will join Biden in Glasgow to showcase their “whole-of-government approach to tackling the climate crisis,” a White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the trip.
Biden is aligned with the pontiff on many central issues, including climate change and economic disparities. But the question of whether he should receive Communion — which is likely to come to a boil when bishops hold their annual meeting in November — has set off an awkward dynamic, not just between Biden and the church but also between Francis and American Catholic leaders.
“I don’t think the issue of the Eucharist will dominate the meeting,” said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University professor of theology who has written a book on Biden and Catholicism. “But for American Catholics who follow the debate, this will send a message that this pope — who has a very critical view of American culture — is protecting the sacramental life of the president of the United States.”
Biden is probably the most observant president in decades, regularly attending Mass. He has been tight-lipped about the possibility of being denied the Eucharist. In the meantime, he receives Communion in Washington, where the archbishop, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, believes the sacred rite should not be denied even when there are philosophical disagreements.
Francis has not taken an explicit stance on what should happen, but the pope in September appeared to criticize conservative bishops who are trying to make a political point. Francis said that abortion is “murder” but also that the decision to grant Communion should be a pastoral, not political, one.
“God’s style is closeness, compassion and tenderness,” Francis said then.
Cardinal Peter Turkson, an influential Vatican figure, made the point more clearly in an interview with Axios that aired on HBO, saying Biden should not be denied Communion.
Last week, Francis held a private audience with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has been the target of similar criticism by conservative Catholics, including her own archbishop, over her support for abortion rights.
The debate highlights one of Francis’s greatest challenges — contending with a group of conservative prelates who have sometimes been among his most vocal opponents in culture war clashes.
Francis and Biden have met several times, including when Biden was vice president during the Obama administration. Their longest time together was in September 2015, during Francis’s visit to the United States, when Biden and his wife had a private meeting with the pope and accompanied him on much of his nearly week-long journey, even bidding him farewell at the airport in Philadelphia. They met again in April 2016, when Biden attended a Vatican conference on regenerative medicine.
When Biden became president, the pope’s message — asking him to help foster “understanding, reconciliation and peace within the United States” and abroad — was considerably more welcoming than the message from American bishops, which was confrontational on the issue of abortion. That statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Biden had “pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life.”
David Campbell, a political science professor at University of Notre Dame, said the country has come a long way from its first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, who had to convince Protestants of his independence from the Catholic Church.
“Today, the nation’s second Catholic president receives criticism, from both Protestants and Catholics, that he is too independent of the Church, specifically on abortion,” Campbell said in an email. “However, by meeting with the Pope, President Biden can reinforce his Catholic identity, which he speaks of eloquently and often. Furthermore, a well-publicized visit to the Vatican by the president complicates the efforts of some American bishops to deny him communion.”
Seung Min Kim and Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.