There's an intriguing subplot to President Joe Biden's upcoming meeting with Pope Francis. The world's two most prominent Roman Catholics will be celebrating a shared outlook on church teaching and vital social issues even as Biden faces unwavering opposition from many U.S. Catholic bishops over his stances on abortion and LGBTQ rights.
Less than three weeks after Biden's visit to the Vatican on Friday, the American bishops will convene in Baltimore, with one of the agenda items inspired in part by conservatives who contend that Biden's support for abortion rights should disqualify him from receiving Communion. Though any document that emerges is not expected to mention Biden by name, it's possible there could be a clear message of rebuke.
“This is way beyond embarrassing,” said Massimo Faggioli, a professor of historical theology at Villanova University who recently wrote a book about Biden and Catholicism.
“For some of the bishops, it's an act of intimidation” toward Biden, Faggioli said. “And they have a pope who is protecting a Catholic president's access to the sacraments – he's had to send a signal from the Vatican saying, 'We don't think this is wise.'”
The pope upholds Catholic doctrine opposing abortion and same-sex marriage, but he has irked some conservative Catholics in the U.S. and elsewhere by emphasizing other issues that mesh with Biden's priorities – protecting the environment, combating racial injustice and poverty, for example.
The pope and Biden “see eye to eye on many issues,” Faggioli said. “But they both are really embattled, facing very strong headwinds; ... fighting against different kinds of ideologues.”
Biden is only the second Catholic president of the United States, after John F. Kennedy, and displays his faith openly, often wearing a rosary and attending Mass routinely. The devotion dates to childhood; he has expressed gratitude to the nuns who helped bolster his confidence while he struggled with stuttering as a schoolboy.
Biden conveyed why he considers himself a faithful Catholic despite his views on abortion in a 2007 interview with the Christian Science Monitor.
“My views are totally consistent with Catholic social doctrine,” Biden said. “There are elements within the church who say that if you are at odds with any of the teachings of the church, you are at odds with the church. I think the church is bigger than that.”
Francis already has made clear he won't shun U.S. political leaders who support abortion rights. On Oct. 9, he met at the Vatican with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose abortion stance has drawn the wrath of the top Catholic in her hometown of San Francisco, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. Cordileone has been urging the U.S. bishops conference to send a message to Biden, Pelosi and others “that would move them in their conscience.”
Under Catholic policy, decisions regarding exclusion from Communion are left to individual bishops. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, has made clear that Biden is welcome to receive Communion when he attends services there.
Francis, asked last month whether Biden and like-minded politicians should be denied Communion, avoided a “yes” or “no” answer, saying bishops must minister to such people with “compassion and tenderness.” He warned that clerics shouldn't let politics influence decisions about receiving Communion.
Abortion is not the only issue placing Biden in opposition to the U.S. bishops. He is a strong supporter of the proposed Equality Act, which would extend federal civil rights protections to LGBTQ people nationwide. The bishops say the bill, currently stalled in the Senate, would violate the religious freedom of churches and individuals opposed to same-sex marriage and various transgender-rights policies.