What Biden's account hath wrought

Analysis

If you want to understand why there are Catholics frustrated or angry about President Joe Biden’s visit last week to the Apostolic Palace, consider this: Just hours after Biden told reporters that the pope lauded him as a good Catholic and urged him to continue receiving the Eucharist, the president tweeted a message to Virginia voters.

He urged them to “elect leaders who are absolutely committed to protecting” the “reproductive rights... under attack throughout the country.”

Pope Francis apparently called Biden a good Catholic, and then Biden asked voters to protect the moral evil of abortion.

Whatever one thinks about the fracas over Biden and “Eucharistic coherence” among the U.S. bishops, it is easy to understand why that juxtaposition seemed especially galling to those Catholics working to end legal protection for abortion — in line with the Church’s teaching on the subject.

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Of course, no one knows what Pope Francis said to Biden behind closed doors on Friday. We know what Biden says he heard, and there are reasons to think it is not what Pope Francis actually said.

But we also know the Holy See will almost certainly not clarify what happened. Consider that the Holy See has not spoken out about a genocide in western China, or the Catholic-led fight for human rights in Hong Kong, seemingly to preserve its tenuous diplomatic relationship with Beijing.

While Vatican officials have occasionally clarified that the 97-year-old Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari did not accurately represent the words of Pope Francis, they’ve usually done so with great reticence, and only when the misrepresentations suggested the pope had said some explicit heresy. 

It is not likely the press office will make a similar correction of the United States president. It is simply not customary for the Holy See to clarify accounts of meetings like Biden’s. And there are no indications the Vatican intends to break that custom — even if Catholics in his country say they’re scandalized by Biden’s account of the pontiff’s remarks.

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Biden supporters are certain to continue celebrating the president’s account of his meeting with Pope Francis — for them, it was a moment of renewal and hope, and a rebuke to Biden’s critics in both the episcopate and the commentariat. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are indeed some Catholic voices who will treat Biden’s account as a verified verbatim transcript, in order to advance their predictable pre-written narratives against the pope.

But there are a lot of practicing Catholics who fit neither of those camps. And some of them, even while trying to give the pope the benefit of the doubt, are frustrated.

It is not that the frustrated Catholics are confused by the alleged approbatio of Pope Francis, it’s that they disagree with it: For many American Catholics, it is dispiriting that a person actively engaged in efforts to legally protect and federally fund abortion could present himself for Holy Communion, much less boast about a papal greenlight for doing so.

Some of those Catholics point out that since the early decades of Christianity, believers who acted beyond the bounds of Christian morality were separated from the Eucharistic table. 

And even if, for some, it’s questionable whether bishops should prohibit politicians campaigning on abortion from Eucharistic communion, many practicing Catholics in America are certain that such a person should have the decency not get in the communion line in the first place — until, that is, a change of heart. Pope Francis himself has said as much.

Still, as the president’s remarks feature in the Catholic conversation in the next few weeks, to some the Holy See’s silence will seem to speak volumes. 

That’s why Catholics who have spent decades praying at abortion clinics and helping pregnant women — who praised the pope for his remarks on abortion last month — told The Pillar that they felt like the ground dropped from beneath them on Friday. 

Even if they try to give him the benefit of the doubt, the entire situation is likely to serve as another brick in the wall for those Catholics who have already said they feel let down, misunderstood, or unsupported by the pontiff — including clerics. But such Catholics exist, and some say they are grappling with what to make of Biden’s account.

The journalists who suggest those people are regressive troglodytes hell-bent on defying the pope and waging a toxic culture war — rather than taking many of them at face value, as struggling but committed Catholics — probably won’t help matters much. Nor does that approach seem to reflect the principles of accompaniment and dialogue.

In short, the weekend’s game of papal-presidential telephone has contributed to an existing crisis of morale for some Catholics — including the priests and bishops trying to find a faithful and sensible via media between the contempt for the pontiff expressed in some corners of the Church, and his unquestioned lionization in others. For Catholics who think neither approach is healthy, the middle road feels increasingly narrow.

President Biden may have intended to give a faithful account of his meeting with Pope Francis on Friday. Or he might have wanted to ice the U.S. bishops who have been critical of Catholic politicians like him and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. At his most calculating, he may have wanted to throw a bit of chaos into USCCB deliberations on the Eucharistic coherence document.

Whatever his intention, it is unlikely that Biden’s actual goal was to discourage any cadre of Catholics trying to live out their faith — but, at least by early reactions — that seems to be what he has accomplished. 

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