OCTOBER 28, 2021
VATICAN CITY — When Joseph R. Biden Jr. visits the Vatican on Friday, he will be the third American president Francis has met since becoming pope in 2013. Each has marked a distinct phase not only of his papacy, but also of the political upheaval in the United States and in its Roman Catholic church.
President Barack Obama shared Francis’ global magnetism, celebrity wattage and a focus on immigrants, climate change and the poor. President Donald J. Trump, whose Christianity Francis once questioned for his anti-immigrant policies, ushered in a populist era that helped sideline Francis.
Now Mr. Biden, a Catholic who rarely misses Sunday Mass, arrives at a moment when the political polarization in America has seeped deeply into its Catholic church. The president and pope, who share common ground on many issues, have become common targets of powerful conservative American bishops seeking to undercut them.
The most hostile among them, appointed by Francis’ conservative predecessors, have either ignored or resisted the pope’s efforts to reorient the priorities of the church toward inclusion and social justice, and away from culture war issues like abortion and L.G.B.T.Q. rights.
They have amplified their critiques of both men through a conservative Catholic media constellation that is Trump-friendly. Despite a clear warning from the Vatican, they have pursued an effort to deny holy communion to Roman Catholic politicians supportive of abortion rights — including Mr. Biden.
Even from Rome, the enmity is hard to miss.
“He is aware of the hostility,” said Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and close ally of Francis, adding, “It’s a matter of fact.”
Vatican officials and experts said they doubted that the antagonism of American bishops would come up in the private audience between Francis and Mr. Biden, and that they would instead talk about issues like addressing climate change, caring for the poor and ending the pandemic. Francis is likely to press the president to ramp up coronavirus vaccine distribution to the developing world, and he rarely misses the chance to speak out against arms dealing and the consequences of war.
Yet factions left and right will be studying the meeting for any clue that the pope is providing political cover to the first Catholic American president since John F. Kennedy against the conservative culture warriors in their church.
The pope has been careful not to give political ammunition, either way, when he has been asked about the issue directly. Instead, he has sought to avoid partisan politics.
Asked about the effort to deny Mr. Biden communion, he told reporters on a papal flight in September that “I have never refused the eucharist to anyone,” though he added that he did not know of any instance when such a politician had come to him for communion.
Francis considers the politicization, and weaponization, of the eucharist disastrous for the church and its ability to remain above the secular fray. The Vatican has noted that Mr. Biden’s bishop, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, who was appointed by Francis, has said he will not deny the president communion.
Francis clearly has avid backers in the United States, especially among the bishops and cardinals he has appointed. But among American bishops, his appointees and allies are not a majority, and Vatican officials have worried that movement by a majority of Catholic bishops against a Catholic president and other top Catholic office holders in the United States could set a dangerous precedent.
Liberal Catholics say they were encouraged that Francis rolled out the welcome mat for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, another politician who favors abortion rights, during a meeting this month in his study. Francis allowed the meeting to be videotaped, and it exuded warmth.
Back home, Ms. Pelosi’s bishop, the Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, has issued a pastoral letter calling for public figures who support abortion to be barred from the sacrament.
Soon after her meeting with Francis, Ms. Pelosi attended a Mass at St. Patrick’s, a church dedicated to the American expatriate community in Rome.
The Rev. Steven J. Petroff, the rector, welcomed her and expected to give her communion, but a nearby protest over a new Italian coronavirus health pass turned violent and led the authorities to evacuate her for security concerns.
Conservative news outlets critical of Francis and Ms. Pelosi misreported her departure as forced by heckling in the church. That prompted a torrent of hate mail from American Catholics furious with Father Petroff for inviting her into his church, including he said, calling her the “spawn of Satan” and calling him “Satan’s helper.”
“Sadly, the political lines are much more defined, and divisive, than they ever have been,” Father Petroff said in an interview. “And that has spilled over into the church, at least the church in the United States.”
He added that his Rome church community had been a peaceful and politically tolerant one. “That spilling over,” he said “really came from the U.S.”
For years now, Francis and top Vatican officials have identified the opposition to this pontificate as coming largely from conservatives in the United States. Francis has called it “an honor that the Americans attack me.” He has said “I’m not scared” about the prospect of a schism with dissenters in the American church.
But Francis has apparently grown frustrated in recent months with the hostile corners of the American church and their media megaphone. The American Catholic television network, EWTN, is arguably the world’s largest, and its biggest star, Raymond Arroyo, a favorite of Mr. Trump, has frequently hosted guests hostile to Francis and Mr. Biden.
EWTN owns an array of English-language Catholic outlets that are popular with American bishops and many American churchgoers, and which have featured Carlo Maria Viganò, the rogue archbishop and former papal envoy to the United States who has called for the pope’s resignation.
In September, an EWTN correspondent covering the White House drew a sharp response from Mr. Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, when he asked her, “Why does the president support abortion when his own Catholic faith teaches abortion is morally wrong?”
“He believes that it’s up to a woman to make those decisions with her doctor,” Ms. Psaki replied. “I know you’ve never faced those choices. Nor have you ever been pregnant, but for women out there who have faced those choices, this is an incredibly difficult thing.”
In March, Francis told the EWTN reporter and cameraman onboard a papal flight to Iraq that the network “should stop bad-mouthing me,” according to a report in the Jesuit magazine America. The reporter on the flight declined to comment. The network’s Rome bureau chief did not return a request for comment.
And on his recent trip to Slovakia, Francis also joked in a meeting with Jesuits who asked about his health that he was “still alive, even though some people wanted me to die.” He also pointed out “a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope.”
“They are the work of the devil,” the pope added. “I have also said this to some of them.”
Leaders among the conservative American bishops rallied to the network’s defense. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who led the archdiocese of Philadelphia and who is a former EWTN board member, wrote last week that “any suggestion that EWTN is unfaithful to the Church” is “simply vindictive and false.”
EWTN and the country’s conservative bishops have hardly been enthusiastic about Francis’ message and agenda. Last week, a report in the National Catholic Reporter showed that columns and newsletters by United States bishops had largely ignored Francis’ calls for action against climate change.
“The bishops are sending an unambiguous message,” said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University theology professor 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 American bishops from the “self-destruction” of politicization, but that they were ignoring him and viewed both Mr. Biden and the pope as threats to their side of the culture wars over abortion and gay rights.
The meeting with Francis will not be Mr. Biden’s first. As vice president, Mr. Biden accompanied Francis on several stops during the pope’s trip to the United States in 2015. The pope personally consoled the Biden family on the then fresh loss of Mr. Biden’s son Beau.
Mr. Biden, educated by nuns in Catholic school, has said he had contemplated entering the priesthood several times, and once said he would “shove 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 sit-down meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, in which they discussed Catholic doctrine, especially on politically divisive issues such as abortion.“And by the way, he wasn’t judgmental. He was open. I came away enlivened from the discussion,” he told America magazine in 2015.
But clearly it was Francis who spoke to him most. “I am,” he said, “so excited about this pope.”