Post-Trump, Biden seeks to restore US relations with Holy See

Pope Francis and President Biden in two images.
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The Biden administration is working to restore America’s relationship with the global Catholic Church at a time when Catholic bishops in the U.S. are targeting the president over his stance on abortion.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit with Pope Francis on Monday was seen as an attempt to reset relations between Washington and the Holy See following former President Trump’s administration.

President Biden is expected to visit the pope in October while he faces critics at home who question if politicians who support abortion rights should be allowed to receive communion.

It is unclear if the U.S. Catholic bishops’ move to proceed with drafting a formal statement on the meaning of Communion, which will include whether pro-choice politicians should be denied it, came up in the conversation between the pope and Blinken.

The pope on Monday expressed “his affection and his attention” to Americans and recounted the last time he visited the U.S. in 2015. Blinken said the pope was “extremely warm” and did not answer questions from reporters on if the bishops’ vote came up.

The Vatican’s relationship with the Trump administration was much more contentious. The pope refused to receive Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in September 2020, when the Vatican said they don’t meet with politicians during an election season.

The pope had criticized Trump’s actions on climate, including his withdrawal of the United States from the 2015 Paris agreement, and had been critical of Trump’s immigration policies, including the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The pope and Blinken discussed refugees and climate change on Monday, two areas where the Vatican and the Biden administration align. 

Margaret Susan Thompson, a professor of history and political science at the Maxwell School Syracuse University, said the contrast wasn’t hard to spot.

“In this meeting, it seems that there was far more cordiality and acknowledgment of what the U.S. and Vatican have in common,” she said.

Monday’s meeting can also been seen as a curtain raiser to the upcoming visit between Biden, only the second Catholic president in U.S. history, and the pope in the fall.

“I think this is emblematic of Pope Francis’s entire papacy that he has always emphasized a more comprehensive view of Catholic social teaching, he is not a single-issue pope,” Thompson said. “There’s plenty about the Biden administration that the pope can work with. There’s plenty of areas they can agree on.”

The pope warned against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) moving forward with their vote this month. Now the group is responding to the backlash over the vote by releasing a document clarifying that they will not create “a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians.” 

The paper emphasizes that “the document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons.”

The bishops vote exposed divisions within the church.

“Of course, the Catholic block in the United States, it’s a big chunk of the electorate and it’s also a group that’s pretty divided politically,” said Kyle Kondik, who analyzes elections at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “There are plenty of American Catholics who think maybe that Pope Francis basically is too liberal on certain things. It’s not like every single Catholic is a thousand percent with the current pope.”

The head of the USCCB, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, is the first Latino to lead the group and has been a strong advocate for immigrants in the U.S., calling for immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship. Gomez, though, is very conservative on other areas such as abortion.

As a whole, the Catholic bishops group in the U.S. is considered more conservative than the global Catholic Church, especially on abortion.

Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu (Calif.) last week accused the bishop’s group of being hypocrites following their vote, pointing out the lack of criticism toward Trump, when his administration’s policies strayed from the church.

Kondik noted that American Catholics, like Biden, prioritize different areas of Catholic teaching and have different areas in mind when they vote.

“If you were a devout Catholic and you wanted to base your politics on what the church teaches, you probably would have a hard time in American politics picking the party because you’d have to be anti-death penalty, anti-abortion, but you could interpret some of the church teaching as being pro-union,” Kondik said.

The majority of U.S. bishops wanted to focus on communion and abortion. The action item for the committee on doctrine to start a teaching document on the Holy Eucharist passed 168-55, with six bishops abstaining from the vote.

The document will be up for debate, subject to amendments and voted on at the group’s next meeting in November, just one month after Biden meets with the pope.

Thompson argues that the U.S. bishops’ focus on communion and abortion makes them an outlier in the Catholic global church. 

“The pope’s not saying that that’s the only issue that Catholics should be concerned with and neither is President Biden,” Thompson said. “And so, I think this is an implicit criticism or whatever of the American bishops, I think they’re the outliers here.”

Tags Abortion Antony Blinken Catholic Church Donald Trump Immigration Joe Biden Mike Pompeo Pope Francis Ted Lieu

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