Francis and Biden’s meeting will highlight the break with the American bishops


VATICAN CITY – When Joseph R. Biden Jr. visits the Vatican on Friday, he will be the third US President Francis meets since becoming pope in 2013. Each marked a distinct phase not only in his papacy, but also in the political upheaval in the United States and in its Roman Catholic Church.

President Barack Obama shared Francis’ global magnetism, celebrity power and focus on immigrants, climate change and the poor. President Donald J. Trump, whose Christianity has been questioned by Francis for his anti-immigrant policies, ushered in a populist era that helped to sideline Francis.

Now Mr. Biden, a Catholic who rarely misses Sunday Mass, comes at a time when political polarization in America has seeped deeply into his Catholic church. The president and the pope, who share common ground on many issues, have become common targets of powerful conservative American bishops seeking to undermine them.

The most hostile of them, named by Francis’ conservative predecessors, ignored or resisted the Pope’s efforts to reorient the church’s priorities towards inclusion and social justice, and move away from issues of cultural warfare. like abortion and LGBTQ rights.

They amplified their criticism of the two men through a conservative Catholic media constellation that is pro-Trump. Despite a clear warning from the Vatican, they continued their efforts to deny Holy Communion to Roman Catholic politicians supporting the right to abortion, including Mr. Biden.

Even from Rome, the enmity is hard to miss.

“He is aware of the hostility,” said Antonio Spadaro, Jesuit priest and close ally of Francis, adding: “It is a fact.

Vatican officials and experts said they doubted America’s bishops’ antagonism would manifest in the private audience between Francis and Mr Biden, and would instead speak on issues such as the fight against change climate, caring for the poor and the end of the pandemic. Francis is likely to pressure the president to speed up the distribution of coronavirus vaccines in the developing world, and he rarely misses the opportunity to speak out against arms trafficking and the consequences of war.

Still, left and right factions will study the meeting for any hint that the Pope is providing political cover to America’s first Catholic President since John F. Kennedy against the culturally conservative warriors in their church.

Already on Thursday evening, the Vatican’s announcement that it had canceled the scheduled live broadcast of the start of the meeting – limiting it to the only arrival of Mr Biden’s motorcade – has become water for partisan analysis.

Matteo Bruni, the Vatican spokesman, said that “this is normal procedure” during the pandemic, and “exactly the same as for any head of state or government”. The Vatican said it would provide news agencies with edited video clips after the meeting.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters the administration “is working through all the levers we have” to gain better access to the media.

The Pope was careful not to donate political ammunition, anyway, when asked directly about efforts to deny Communion to Mr. Biden. Instead, he sought to avoid partisan politics.

Asked about it during a papal robbery in September, he told reporters that “I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone”, although he added that he did not know of any instance where a politician who supported the right to abortion had come to see him for communion.

Francis considers the politicization and militarization of the Eucharist to be disastrous for the church and its ability to stay above the secular fray. The Vatican noted that Mr. Biden’s bishop, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, who was appointed by Francis, has said he will not refuse the president’s communion.

Francis clearly has avid supporters in the United States, especially among the bishops and cardinals he has appointed. But among American bishops, its nominees and allies are not in the majority, and Vatican officials fear that the movement of a majority of Catholic bishops against a Catholic president and other senior Catholic officials in the United States will create a dangerous precedent.

Liberal Catholics say they are encouraged by the fact that Francis rolled out the welcome mat for President Nancy Pelosi, another politician who promotes the right to abortion, during a meeting this month in her office. Francis allowed the meeting to be videotaped, and it exuded warmth.

Back home, Ms Pelosi’s Bishop, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, published a pastoral letter calling for public figures who support abortion to be excluded from the sacrament.

Shortly after meeting Francis, Ms. Pelosi attended a mass at Saint Patrick, a church dedicated to the American expatriate community in Rome.

Reverend Steven J. Petroff, the rector, greeted her and expected to give her Communion, but a nearby protest against a new Italian coronavirus health pass turned violent and led authorities to l ” evacuate for safety reasons.

Conservative media criticizing Francis and Ms Pelosi misreported his departure as forced by ruckus in the church. This sparked a torrent of hate mail from American Catholics furious at Father Petroff for inviting her to his church, including, he said, calling her the “seed of Satan” and the calling for “help from Satan.”

“Unfortunately, the political lines are much more defined and divisive than they ever have been,” Father Petroff said in an interview. “And it’s spread to the church, at least the church in the United States. “

He added that his religious community in Rome had been peaceful and politically tolerant. “This overflow,” he said, “really comes from the United States”

For years now, Francis and senior Vatican officials have identified opposition to this pontificate as largely coming from conservatives in the United States. Francis called “an honor that the Americans attack me”. He said “I am not afraid” of the prospect of a schism with dissidents in the American Church.

But Francis has apparently become frustrated in recent months by the hostile corners of the American church and their media megaphone. The American Catholic television network, EWTN, is arguably the largest in the world, and its biggest star, Raymond Arroyo, a favorite of Mr. Trump, has frequently hosted guests hostile to Francis and Mr. Biden.

EWTN has an array of English-speaking Catholic outlets that are popular with American Bishops and many American faithful, and which featured Carlo Maria Viganò, the rogue Archbishop and former Pope’s envoy to the United States who called for the resignation of the Pope.

In September, an EWTN correspondent covering the White House elicited a strong reaction from Mr. Biden’s press secretary, Ms. Psaki, when he asked, “Why is the president supporting the abortion when its own Catholic faith teaches that abortion is morally wrong? “

“He thinks it’s up to a woman to make these decisions with her doctor,” Ms. Psaki replied. “I know you’ve never faced these choices. You’ve never been pregnant either, but for women who have faced those choices, it’s an incredibly difficult thing. “

In March, Francis told EWTN reporter and cameraman aboard a papal flight to Iraq that the network “should stop bashing me,” according to an article in Jesuit magazine America. The reporter on the flight declined to comment. The head of the network’s office in Rome did not return a request for comment.

And on his recent trip to Slovakia, Francis also joked during a meeting with Jesuits who asked about his health saying he was “still alive, although some people wanted me to die”. He also underlined “a large Catholic television channel which does not hesitate to continually speak ill of the Pope”.

“They are the work of the devil,” added the Pope. “I also said that to some of them.”

Leaders among conservative American bishops have rallied in defense of the network. Bishop Charles J. Chaput, who headed the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and is a past member of the EWTN Board of Trustees, written last week that “any suggestion that EWTN is unfaithful to the Church” is “merely vindictive and false.”

EWTN and the country’s conservative bishops were not very enthusiastic about Francis’s message and agenda. Last week, a report in the National Catholic journalist showed that the columns and bulletins of the bishops of the United States had largely ignored Francis’ calls for action on climate change.

“The bishops send a clear message,” said Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology at Villanova University and author of “Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States”. “We don’t care what Pope Francis says or does. “

Mr Faggioli argued that Francis was trying to save the American bishops from the “self-destruction” of politicization, but ignored it and viewed both Mr Biden and the Pope as threats to their side of the wars. culture on abortion and homosexuals. rights.

The meeting with Francis will not be Mr. Biden’s first. As Vice President, Mr. Biden accompanied Francis on several occasions on the Pope’s trip to the United States in 2015. The Pope personally consoled the Biden family over the further loss of Mr. Biden’s son, Beau.

Mr Biden, educated by nuns at a Catholic school, said he had considered entering the priesthood on several occasions, and once said he would “stick my rosary” down the throat of the next Republican who challenged his faith.

He met John Paul II as a young senator and had a long meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, during which they discussed Catholic doctrine, especially on politically controversial issues such as abortion. . judgement. He was open. I came out of the discussion animated, ”he said. tell America reviewed in 2015.

But clearly it was François who spoke to her the most. “I am,” he said, “so excited about this pope. “

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