WASHINGTON – By the time John F. Kennedy met with newly coronated Pope Paul VI in 1963, the nation’s first Roman Catholic president had been trying for years to assuage many Americans’ concerns that the Vatican would heavily influence U.S. policy.
With Kennedy, “the big question was, 'is he a loyal enough American,'” said Jo Renee Formicola, a political science professor at Seton Hall University and an expert in church-state relations. “For a lot of people today, the big question with Biden is, 'is he a loyal enough Catholic?'”
Biden, a devout Catholic who attends Mass regularly and carries rosary beads that belonged to his deceased son Beau, headed into his historic meeting with Francis amid serious concerns among some U.S. Catholic bishops over his support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
One of the issues on the agenda for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when it convenes in Baltimore in mid-November is whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be admonished for receiving Communion.
In July, the bishops overwhelmingly approved the drafting of a “teaching document” that many of them hope will rebuke Catholic politicians for receiving Communion despite their support for abortion rights. Though any document is unlikely to mention Biden by name, its passage would be a clear admonition of the U.S. president.
Analysts doubted Francis will lecture Biden about his support for abortion rights during their meeting on Friday. More than likely, the two leaders will focus on issues where they can find common ground, such as the environment, immigration and helping the poor.
“They’re going to talk about much bigger issues that they believe would be able to unite people rather than issues that would divide people,” Formicola said.
Francis already has registered his discomfort with the movement led by conservative bishops to deny communion to politicians who back abortion rights.
“I have never refused the eucharist to anyone,” Francis told reporters in September, adding that pastors should “be a pastor, don’t go condemning.”
Even if he doesn’t verbalize that on Friday, his meeting with Biden will still help reinforce that message, said Massimo Faggioli, author of “Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States,” an examination of Biden’s Catholicism in the context of American politics.
“The Vatican is not endorsing the pro-abortion politics and policies of Joe Biden and his White House and administration,” Faggioli said. “The Vatican is simply trying to save the Catholic Church in this country from the extremism of some Catholic bishops.”
Unlike Kennedy, who faced anti-Catholic bias and whose faith was viewed as an obstacle when he ran for president in 1960, Biden has spoken comfortably about his devotion to Catholicism and how it has helped him through the darkest chapters of his life, especially the death of his first wife and infant daughter in a car crash in 1972.
After the crash, “I never doubted that there was a God, but I was angry with God,” he told The Christian Science Monitor in 2007.
Biden, who in junior high school briefly considered entering a seminary in Baltimore to become a priest, stressed during the same interview that he considers himself a faithful Catholic even though he supports abortion rights.
“My views are totally consistent with Catholic social doctrine,” he 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.”
'Men of deep faith'
As president, Biden has pushed an “equality agenda” grounded in his faith. During his first days in office, he signed orders to ensure fair treatment for marginalized groups on housing and other issues and strengthened anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender Americans.
Social justice advocates want Biden to address issues such as immigration and human rights when he meets with Francis.
“I would very much like to see something happen in that meeting where the pope can challenge President Biden on some of the issues at the border and to encourage him to extend the human dignity and respect for human dignity,” especially to those seeking asylum and refuge in the United States, said Bishop John Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky.
Stowe said he also hopes the two leaders will talk about the need to work toward peace in the Middle East.
The image of Biden and Francis standing side by side will send a powerful message to the world, said Sister Carol Zinn, executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
“When I think about just the image of Pope Francis and President Biden meeting, one of the things I see is these two men of deep faith, realizing that they are in fact leaders – political, yes, and political in terms of influence,” she said. “Obviously, President Biden has a different sense of political, but both of these men, both of our brothers, I think, have a deeply rooted sense of their responsibility as human beings to in fact lead to influence.”
Zinn said she sees both Biden and Francis as “men of God.”
“Do they have differences? Absolutely,” she said. But, “they will meet at a deeper level. Will they listen to each other? Yes. And they'll listen, I think, to understand each other.”
'Faith is not a badge'
For Biden, faith is personal, not political, Faggioli said.
“Very rarely has Joe Biden given the impression that he is mentioning his faith because it works politically,” Faggioli said. “He made a very careful mention of his faith during the 2020 campaign, but in a way that was always considerate, not instrumental, not fake.
“Joe Biden’s faith is a part of who he is. Faith is not a badge or a slogan for Joe Biden.”
Though Friday will mark the first time Biden and Francis have met since Biden became president, they have met three times before.
In 2013, when Biden was vice president, he led the U.S. delegation to Francis’ formal installation as pope. The two men met again when the pontiff visited the U.S. in 2015 and when Biden visited the Vatican in 2016 to speak about cancer prevention at a conference on regenerative medicine.
Formicola predicted Biden’s meeting with Francis on Friday could help thwart the movement to keep him from receiving communion.
“For Biden, it’s a win because it says, ‘Look, I’m a real Catholic. I’m meeting with the pope,’” she said.
Francis, on the other hand, is basically sending a message to U.S. bishops that “look, I support this guy” and that “you need to know which side I’m going to come down on.”
Even if U.S. bishops approve a statement regarding Communion, it would serve only as guidance. Decisions about who should be excluded from Communion would be left to individual bishops.
A statement on Communion also would require the Vatican’s approval, “and the wheels of the Vatican turn very slowly,” Formicola said.
Vatican approval could take years and possibly wouldn’t happen until after Biden has left office, she said.
“This situation is basically moot,” Formicola said. “I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden pope visit: Abortion, communion debate in spotlight of Rome trip