VATICAN CITY — Meeting with Pope Francis on Friday for the first time during his administration, President Biden said he was told by the pontiff that he is a “good Catholic” who should continue to receive Communion, even as some conservative U.S. Catholic leaders argue he should be denied the sacrament for his stance on abortion.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified a biblical figure mentioned in a quote by Bishop Thomas Tobin. Tobin was referring to Herod Antipas, who imprisoned John the Baptist, not Herod the Great. This article has been corrected.
Here’s what to know:
● Biden’s account of the meeting provides potential insight on Francis’s thinking about an issue that has divided the U.S. Catholic Church.
● Later Friday, Biden sought to rebuild trust with French President Emmanuel Macron, saying the United States had been “clumsy” in its handling of a defense deal that upset France.
● Officials representing the Group of 20 nations announced a new global body for coordinating responses to the next pandemic, but the initiative faced immediate criticism because it appears to lack resources.
● After the G-20 summit in Rome this weekend, the country leaders will continue on to Glasgow, Scotland, for the COP26 climate conference.
The meeting between the world’s two most powerful Catholics was, in large part, a warm affair: They talked about policies on which they agreed. They shared gifts. Biden arrived at the Apostolic Palace saying, “It’s good to be back,” and stayed with the pontiff well after he was supposed to leave. Biden called the visit “wonderful.”
But such is the strained state of American Catholicism that even a diplomatic meeting between admirers can touch on explosive material for the faith. When Biden, speaking hours later to reporters, unexpectedly described Francis as having spoken about Communion, it appeared as if the pope was making a judgment on a question roiling the U.S. church — about whether politicians who support abortion should be barred from one of the religion’s most sacred rites.
“We just talked about the fact he was happy that I was a good Catholic and I should keep receiving Communion,” Biden said.
The Holy See’s own readout of the event mentioned neither Communion nor abortion, and the pope’s reported comment didn’t appear in an edited 13-minute clip of Vatican footage from the day. A Vatican spokesman said the church wouldn’t respond to Biden’s description of events, saying the conversation had been “private.”
While the full view of events was limited, the account quickly caused a stir for American Catholics, who had been watching this first stop on Biden’s trip to Europe — where he’ll also attend a Group of 20 summit in Rome and climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland — for what it might say about two men contending with similar polarization and adversaries.
Some conservative bishops have campaigned to deny Communion to Biden and other politicians with similar views on abortion, and at a meeting in two weeks, they will vote on a proposed document about the meaning of the Eucharist. Though its authors say the draft won’t mention Biden or abortion, or single out who doesn’t qualify, those topics are expected to come up during discussions.
Before Friday, Francis had been vague about his opinions on the American debate, advising only that bishops should be “pastors, and not go condemning.” While many church watchers interpreted that remark as being supportive of Biden, his reported comments Friday hit at a far more fundamental point, about whether adherence to doctrine — on issues like abortion — is necessary to be a good Catholic.
“I fear that the Church has lost its prophetic voice. Where are the John the Baptists who will confront the Herods of our day?” Thomas Tobin, the bishop of Providence, R.I., said on Twitter, referring to a figure in the Bible who imprisoned the preacher and prophet. Earlier in the day, before the meeting, Tobin had called Biden’s abortion stance “an embarrassment for the Church and a scandal to the world,” and pressed the pope to confront the president.
Stephen White, the leader of the Catholic Project at Catholic University, noted that Francis has used strong language to speak of the church’s teaching against abortion — he’s referred to it as “murder” — but is trying to keep Communion from being politicized. Any reference to Biden as a good Catholic “shouldn’t be taken as some kind of acceptance of Biden’s abortion policies,” White said.
“The whole point of Catholicism is that we’re not good and we want to be better,” White said.
This was Biden’s fourth time meeting Pope Francis, but his first encounter since he was elected as America’s second Catholic president. Biden regularly attends Mass and keeps a photo of Pope Francis in the Oval Office. On Friday, he said he asked the pope to bless his rosary.
In their 75-minute closed-door meeting, they talked about the pandemic, migration and the moral responsibility to deal with climate change, issues on which they are largely aligned. According to a senior administration official, the pope at one point urged Biden to “accelerate” U.S. ambition on climate change, as science suggests major nations are running out of time to achieve their goals.
Afterward, when the pope and the president exchanged gifts with a wider delegation in the room, Biden was clearly relishing the moment — even as he was running late for other meetings.
According to video from the Vatican, Biden at one point sidled up to the pope and told him of a presidential token called a command coin — a coin that can be given to warriors and leaders.
“And you are the most significant warrior for peace I’ve ever met,” Biden said.
Biden described the coin, which had a U.S. seal on the front, and on the back paid tribute to a National Guard brigade in which his son Beau had served.
“I’m only kidding about this. If next time I see you, you don’t have it, you have to buy the drinks,” said Biden, who then explained he was a teetotaler.
Francis, in turn, made a half-audible joke about whiskey.
A White House official, speaking after the meeting on the condition of anonymity to describe the meeting, said the “engagement between the two was very warm when the delegation arrived in the room.”
“There was laughter and clear rapport between President Biden and Pope Francis,” the official said.
Biden had a subsequent conversation with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state. In total, Biden stayed at the Vatican for nearly three hours, putting him about an hour late behind schedule for meetings in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and French President Emmanuel Macron.
On the way to the Vatican, Biden’s motorcade — more than 80 vehicles — had needed more than five minutes to pass down Via della Conciliazione, the thoroughfare leading to St. Peter’s Square. Before stepping out of an armored sedan, with members of the colorful Swiss Guard standing at attention, Biden removed his black mask. Along with first lady Jill Biden, he then shook hands with a row of welcomers, introducing himself at one point as “Jill’s husband.”
For all the controversy about Communion, Biden’s inauguration has helped stabilize diplomacy with the Vatican. During Donald Trump’s presidency, Francis acted as something of a moral counterpoint, regularly condemning the idea of building walls and arguing about the importance of protecting migrants. When Trump visited the Vatican in 2017, one of the gifts Francis presented was his encyclical on the environment — a pointed message to a leader who pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement.
For years, Francis has seen the United States — including bishops sympathetic to Trump’s point of view — as a centerpiece of the resistance to his own pontificate, even going so far as to call it an “honor” when Americans attack him.
But the points of tension have grown, and when Francis cracked down in July on the celebration of the old Latin Mass, the most vocal criticism came from the United States, where the rite is most widely used. More recently, in speaking to Jesuits during a trip to Slovakia, Francis took aim at a “large Catholic television channel” that he said was continually speaking ill of him and doing the “work of the devil.”
Though he didn’t name the channel, many interpreted the comment as a reference to EWTN, an American Catholic television network that amplifies oppositional voices, including Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who once called on Francis to resign.
Even just before Biden’s departure for Europe, his press secretary, Jen Psaki, got into a testy exchange with the EWTN White House correspondent, who asked a question about whether Biden’s meeting with the pontiff would include the topic of the “human dignity of the unborn.”
“You ask me most often, if not every time, about abortion,” Psaki said.
“Is there a problem with this?” the EWTN correspondent, Owen Jensen, asked.
“There is not,” said Psaki, who eventually noted that Biden and Francis agree on many issues, but abortion is not one of them.
Boorstein reported from Washington.