Biden on Francis: Parsing POTUS's papal precis

Analysis

President Biden told reporters that Pope Francis hailed him as a “good Catholic” and told the president to continue receiving Communion during their private audience on Friday morning. 

It is perhaps the most emphatic and dramatic papal intervention possible into debate among U.S. bishops about how to handle Biden and other pro-abortion Catholic politicians — if, that is, it actually happened.

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Asked by reporters about his meeting with the pope on Friday, Biden said the subject of abortion had not been discussed, adding that “We just talked about the fact he was happy that I was a good Catholic, and I should keep receiving Communion.”

The USCCB has been grappling for more than a year, at least, with three vexing questions: How central the issue of abortion should be to their policy agenda, how to discuss the Catholic faith of pro-abortion politicians like Biden, and whether the Church’s moral and canonical discipline should be invoked in situations like Biden’s. 

In a sentence-and-a-half Friday, Biden flatly claimed the pope had resolved all three.

From now until the U.S. bishops meet in Baltimore in just over two weeks, Biden’s quote will dominate discussion, especially in relation to the bishops’ draft document on the Eucharist. 

Although that text was never likely to include explicit mention of the president, or attempt to proscribe disciplinary action against Catholic politicians in relation to the Eucharist, it was certain that at least some bishops would raise those issues from the floor during its debate. 

Perhaps some still will, but it is now a near certainty that they will be answered with the president’s quote — which will likely be treated as an effectively verbatim account of whatever Francis said to Biden in private. 

But is it? Of course, we will never know. The Vatican has already declined to comment on Biden’s remarks, insisting that what was said in private should remain private. Pope Francis, and indeed popes as a rule, never comment on the contents of private conversations with public figures, however dramatically they might be represented by their interlocutors.

In this case, it would be odd if the pope had been as emphatic and direct to the president as Biden claims, given that would seem to be at odds with the pope’s own recent comments on the same subjects in general. 

Moreover, Francis is hardly unaware of the simmering issue of the president’s status among the bishops of the United States. If he was minded to settle the matter as bluntly as the president claims, it would be curious for him to have used Biden as a kind of messenger, given the furor that Biden’s claims have, as was inevitable, set off.

But assuming the president is speaking in perfectly good faith about his takeaway impressions from the pope, how realistic is it that Pope Francis was quite as direct as Biden claims?

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It is, of course, entirely possible that the pope referred to the president as a “good Catholic” in the course of their conversation, more than an hour long, across a range of topics on which they are likely to have broadly agreed. 

It’s also possible that Francis paid the compliment lightly, perhaps in response to the president similarly calling him a “great pope” or something similar. 

It’s equally plausible that the “good Catholic” label, itself something of an English idiom, was how Biden described himself in some way to the pope, in which case it would be surprising if Francis hadn’t said he was glad to hear it.

Between all three possibilities is a range of implication and emphasis, none of which puts the apparent papal assessment of the president’s Catholicism exactly next to his suitability for Communion and the issue of abortion, which is how the question-and-answer with Biden framed it on Friday.

On the subjects of abortion and Communion, it’s almost impossible to separate those issues in any kind of discussion with or about Biden and the Church. 

It isn’t difficult to believe that abortion was simply not on the agenda of the meeting — as the Vatican has confirmed — if for no other reason than this was meant to be a friendly diplomatic visit, and the obvious differences between the two men’s views on the subject are fairly well known on both sides. 

While many American Catholics might have hoped the pope would take the opportunity to raise the issue as an urgent pastoral concern with Biden, electing not to do so, at least as an official agenda item isn’t hard to credit — especially since such agendas are, as a matter of protocol, usually approved by both sides before the meeting takes place.

Of course, Biden wasn’t exactly unequivocal that abortion was not discussed. When asked if the topic came up, what he said was “No, it didn’t. It came up — We just talked about the fact he was happy that I was a good Catholic, and I should keep receiving Communion.”

So, in the president’s telling, it didn’t come up, but it did, but all that was said was what a good Catholic he is and how he should receive Communion. 

One possible explanation of Biden’s “no-yes” answer could simply be that abortion was not, as per the official agenda, raised as part of the formal president-to-pope discussion, but Biden, being a Catholic sitting with the chief shepherd of the Church, also had some moments to discuss personal affairs when the official business was done, and the issue of his policies, the concerns of the USCCB, and Communion did come up.

It may be, we do not know, that the pope simply told Biden that despite his support for unfettered access to and taxpayer funding for abortion, he should keep taking Communion. It would be a striking departure from his last words on the subject, but it’s possible.

But, reading the pope’s own words on how the situation of pro-abortion Catholic politicians and Communion should be handled, there’s another, perhaps more consistent possibility. 

There’s every reason to believe that the pope would have told the president to do exactly what he has been advised to do by his pastor back home. That is exactly how and by whom the pope has always said such matters should be handled. 

If so, Biden’s own bishop back in Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, has been consistently clear that he would not deny Biden Communion, and would not expect priests in his diocese to do so. The pastor of Biden’s parish has affirmed that he agrees with his archbishop’s view on the matter. 

If Biden said Francis told him to keep taking Communion as a distillation of the pope telling him to defer to his home bishop and parish pastor, that would be a much less emphatic intervention into American ecclesial affairs. Arguably, it would be the prudent course of action.

These are all possible explanations for what the president said the pope told him. We will never know which, if any of them is right. But it seems sure there will be a lengthy debate over the next few weeks between those who will treat the president’s comments as the definitive account, and those who suspect there may be some missing, crucial context. 

Ironically, that debate is unlikely to bring much clarity, or communion. Which is probably why private conversations are usually kept private in the first place.

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