The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s meeting with Pope Francis carries resonance as disputes divide U.S. Catholics

President Biden is the second Catholic U.S. president. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

With Pope John Paul II, the meeting stretched 45 minutes, frequently interrupted by aides who were brushed aside by a pontiff interested in talking to a 37-year-old senator named Joe Biden. With Pope Benedict XVI, there was a long discussion of whether politicians should impose their beliefs on others when it comes to church doctrine, an exchange Biden described as “like going to theology class.”

But it is with Pope Francis — the longtime Jesuit priest Biden will see Friday in a historic encounter at the Vatican — that Biden shares the deepest bond. It was Francis who comforted the Biden family in 2015 after Biden’s son Beau died. It was Francis who met privately with Biden to talk about cancer research. And it was Francis whose photo Biden has displayed prominently in the Oval Office.

Biden’s meeting with the Pope in the Vatican, shortly before he heads off to a pair of international summits, will carry deep political, religious and symbolic significance, as the nation’s second Catholic president greets the worldwide leader of the Catholic Church.

But the resonance is also personal, given the similarities between the 84-year-old pope and the 78-year-old president, who have in a sense become allies. Both attained ultimate leadership late in their lives and quickly moved in a liberal direction. They have faced internal resistance. Both are treated warily by conservative American bishops.

“Both could have become pope or president earlier, but it didn’t work out,” said John Carr, founder of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. “Both were written off, Biden in the campaign and Bergoglio before the conclave, and both were surprises.” (Francis’s given name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio.)

Carr added that Biden and Francis “now are in a position to act on what they believe. But they both also have a lot of the same adversaries.”

Candidate Biden reaches out to Catholics like himself

Biden and Francis are each fighting to change a culture after a predecessor they regarded as rigid and insufficiently inclusive, igniting angry opposition that is proving perhaps more potent than they may have anticipated.

“They have in common that it has become visibly harder for them to keep together their people,” said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University theology professor and author of “Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States.”

“There is a culture of deep suspicion against the leader,” Faggioli said. “It’s no longer ‘I don’t agree with him but he’s my pope anyway’ or ‘I don’t agree with him but he’s my president anyway.’ It’s no longer like that for many people. So they understand each other on that, I think.”

That does not mean the two leaders will see eye-to-eye on everything. Their meeting is likely to showcase common ground on climate change, poverty and the pandemic. But some experts expect Francis to urge the United States to do more on vaccine distribution to poor countries, and Biden could also face criticism of his administration’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan.

The meeting also comes at a time of dissension among American Catholic leaders. Biden’s election last year triggered a dispute among church officials over whether Communion should be granted to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.

“The Catholic Church in this country has never been as divided as it is right now, and the meeting is going to be put in terms of this division in the American church,” said the Rev. Gerald P. Fogarty, a longtime religious studies professor at the University of Virginia.

He is perhaps the most religiously observant president in decades, one who rarely misses Mass, often quotes scripture and clutches rosary beads ahead of key decisions. He was educated by nuns at Catholic schools, and several times in his life considered entering the priesthood.

But Biden’s positions have also at times been at odds with Catholic teaching, contradicting its stances with his early support for same-sex marriage and his embrace of abortion rights.

He has on occasion lost his temper with those who point out such discrepancies. “The next Republican that tells me I’m not religious, I’m going to shove my rosary down their throat,” he said in 2005.

Some Catholics’ distrust of Francis comes partly from the same American bishops who have questioned whether Biden should be granted Communion.

Deeply Catholic Biden at odds with many bishops

Just after Biden’s election, the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declared his abortion policies a “problem” for a Catholic who attends Mass, and a proposal was made to create a document on the purpose of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, the consecrated host that represents the body of Christ and is one of the most sacred sacraments in Christianity.

The bishops next month will vote on a proposed document on the meaning of the Eucharist but, after a furor, the chair of the committee that wrote the draft document has said it will not mention Biden, abortion or the role of public figures.

Amendments can be added up until the last minute, however, and the floor will be open to debate among the bishops. Some may press for at least a mention that canon law forbids Communion to people who are “conscious of serious sin.”

Francis weighed in last month on the debate over granting Communion to politicians who support abortion rights, advising that bishops should be “pastors and not go condemning.”

“There’s a fundamentally fractured relationship between the Vatican and the U.S. bishops,” Faggioli said. “And Joe Biden is in the middle.”

Dramatic statements about the church, or the debate about serving Communion, are unlikely to emerge from the session, but the meeting itself will carry a good deal of symbolism.

In April 2016, then-Vice President Biden met Pope Francis at the Vatican and made emotional remarks about losing his son Beau to brain cancer the year before. (Video: Reuters)

Stylistically, both men pride themselves on shrugging off the trappings of power. “Francis himself is a kind of middle-class, regular parish priest. He doesn’t take himself overly seriously,” said Ken Hackett, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican who accompanied Biden to a meeting with Francis in 2016. Biden, he said, may be more comfortable with this pope than with many of the American bishops.

While many Catholics who meet the pope kiss his ring, that is unlikely in Biden’s case, who is visiting as a head of state and has himself eschewed that practice.

In his 2007 memoir, Biden recalled that when he told his mother he was going to meet the queen of England, she advised him not to bow despite the protocol. “When I told her I was going to see the Pope, it was ‘Don’t you kiss his ring,’ ” Biden added. “ ‘Remember, Joey,’ she’d say, ‘you’re a Biden. Nobody is better than you. You’re not better than anybody else, but nobody is any better than you.’ ”

Biden did avoid bowing to the queen on his recent visit to London, creating a bit of a stir among British observers. But when it comes to kissing the ring, Francis himself has not always appeared to enjoy the ritual, creating international headlines when he at times withdrew his hand from worshipers in 2019. (The Vatican later said it was simply a matter of not wanting to spread germs.)

Biden’s first papal encounter came with Pope John Paul II in 1980, when the pontiff invited him after the senator wrote a paper examining the likely impact on Poland if the Soviet bloc were to collapse.

Biden spent 45 minutes with the pope, who several times waved away aides when they knocked on the door to end the meeting. John Paul, Biden recalled in an interview with the Dialog, the diocesan newspaper in Wilmington, Del., remarked several times about his youth. “He kept kidding me about how young I am,” said Biden, who was 37 at the time.

Biden met John Paul several more times, but the next extensive sit-down with a pope came when he was vice president and met with Benedict in 2011. He later told the Jesuit publication America that they had discussed Catholic doctrine and whether it should be imposed on everyone, particularly when it comes to issues like abortion.

“It was like going back to theology class,” Biden recalled in the 2015 interview. “And by the way, he wasn’t judgmental. He was open. I came away enlivened from the discussion.”

Still, in that same interview, he expressed far greater enthusiasm for Francis, saying, “I am so excited about this pope … the thing that I think is so electric about the holy father is that he’s taking it all back to what my dad would say: We have an obligation to fight against the abuse of power.”

He has restated that affection for Francis over the years. “We have a good one now,” Biden said in 2015, holding up a Washington Post article that detailed Francis’s encyclical on the environment.

“I love that guy,” he added in 2016 on MSNBC, responding to Francis’s criticism of Trump’s immigration proposals.

Biden to name Donnelly ambassador to Vatican

Their relationship deepened during Francis’s trip to the United States in 2015, when Biden accompanied him at multiple stops and displayed his usual chatty manner. “He was just joking all the time. It was a very comfortable thing, casual backslapping stuff,” Hackett recalled. “He wasn’t slapping the pope’s back, but it was like that. Very easygoing.”

As the vice president saw the pope off at Philadelphia International Airport, Biden later said, Francis asked to meet with Biden’s family, who had lost Beau a few months earlier. “I wish every grieving parent, brother, sister, mother, father, would have the benefit of his words, his prayers, his presence,” Biden said in a speech. “He provided us with more comfort than even he, I think, will understand.”

The first U.S. president to meet with a sitting pope was Woodrow Wilson in 1919, although the visit, at the request of a top aide who was Catholic, did not go well, according to contemporary accounts. Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, initially balked at receiving a traditional blessing from Pope Benedict XV, then rejected the pontiff’s peace plan.

Visits became more regular after President Ronald Reagan established diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1984 (although two years prior, during a meeting with Pope John Paul II after little sleep, Reagan noticeably nodded off).

The encounters have at times been tense, especially if a pontiff’s humanitarian message collides with a given president’s agenda. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, questioned President George W. Bush on the Iraq War.

Biden has always made a point of bringing family members to his papal visits — his mother in 1995, his sister Val in 2013, and his son Hunter in 2016. The pope typically gives a blessing and a gift, and Biden this time is expected to provide a gift to the pope in turn.

“I would counsel to give something simple and small,” Hackett said. “The pope just doesn’t go for the silver sword or the emerald whatever. That doesn’t go over with this guy.”

When Biden attended Francis’s installation as pope in 2013, he said the pontiff sought to convey a newly open approach by the Vatican.

“When I greeted him, he said, ‘Mr. Vice President, you’re always welcome here,’ ” Biden recalled later. “He was really sending a message to the world, to put out a welcome sign on the front door of our church.”