Biden set to meet pope as US abortion debate rages

AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

President Biden, only the second Catholic president in U.S. history, will have an audience with Pope Francis on Friday, a meeting that comes amid increasing focus on the issue of abortion rights, which Biden has made a priority of defending.

The Supreme Court has agreed to review Texas’s six-week abortion ban after legal challenges from the Biden administration, and the president faces a lawsuit in Ohio for overturning a Trump-era ban on abortion referrals, all while U.S. Catholic bishops are debating whether Biden should be denied communion over his stance on the procedure.

The White House said topics in the meeting, which first lady Jill Biden will also join, include the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and caring for the poor, all issues where Biden and the pope have common ground.

Francis has encouraged people to get the COVID-19 vaccine, is passionate about climate change and has devoted his papacy to helping the poor.

He is also strongly against abortion and considers it murder.

Biden has been committed during his presidency to a women’s right to choose. During the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, he switched to opposing the Hyde amendment, which prohibits federal funds to be used to pay for abortions, after supporting it throughout his political career.

His abortion stances have led to a formal statement coming next month from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the meaning of Holy Communion, which will include whether pro-choice politicians such as Biden should be denied it.

The decision to proceed with its drafting runs counter to the wishes of the pope, who has cautioned American bishops against denying communion to politicians and warned that the rite shouldn’t be used as a political weapon.

“It’s clear that the Vatican and Pope Francis are really trying openly to protect Joe Biden’s access to the sacraments. They are protecting Biden’s Catholicism from the attacks of the U.S. bishops, and not just because they are concerned about Joe Biden but because they are concerned about what’s happening to Catholicism in this country,” said Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University.

“They are trying to avoid this mutation of Catholicism in this country into a partisan, sectarian church, which is contrary to the Catholic idea that it’s a big tent fundamentally,” he added.

Biden regularly goes to church over weekends in Wilmington, Del., or Washington, D.C., and he touts his faith as a deeply personal aspect of his life.

The White House said this week that the president “has a very personal relationship with Pope Francis.” Biden, 78, has met Francis, 84, three times before.

“We certainly expect it to be a warm meeting,” press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

The White House has deflected from saying if they anticipate Biden’s stance on abortion will come up during this meeting.

However, Paul Manuel, distinguished scholar in residence at the school of public affairs at American University, thinks discussion of the issue is inevitable.

“No doubt that the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage will be brought up by the pope, but I don’t think that this will dominate their conversation. Pope Francis has a habit of discussing church teachings in a pastoral, not a harsh, way,” he said.

On if the meeting could be characterized as a formal or personal visit, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters this week, “I might say both.”

Every American president since Dwight Eisenhower has met with a pope, regardless of political party or religion.

“Just like when Pope Francis met President Obama in 2014, it seems like both Pope Francis and President Biden genuinely like each other. They seem to enjoy each other’s company. I think they’re going to spend some time talking about the struggles they each have in their positions. They will also certainly discuss their shared policy views,” Manuel said.

The White House and Vatican have not committed to full media access to the meeting. That could mean if abortion is discussed, it is never publicized.

Anti-abortion groups are pushing for Biden’s countering of the church’s position to be brought up.

“An important part of the Church’s role in the world is to stand up for the moral truths without which a truly just society cannot exist. We hope that the Holy Father will remind President Biden of what John Paul II explained so well, namely that any concern for the climate or the poor is ‘false and illusory’ if the right to life is not defended with maximum determination,” said Brian Burch, president of

Pope John Paul II famously rebuked former President Clinton for his stance on abortion rights, with the topic dominating two meetings between them.

Anti-abortion group Live Action’s president and founder, Lila Rose, argued that Biden has abandoned his faith with his stance.

“President Biden is morally, scientifically, and legally wrong in his support of the killing of preborn children. I pray that the visit with Pope Francis will inspire President Biden to turn away from his blatant support of violence against children, and towards the urgent need to protect innocent human life,” she said.

Experts argue that this pope is not a single-issue Catholic, so he likely won’t make abortion a main focus, despite the push from U.S. bishops.

“You can be a theological conservative and a social liberal. And then you have to balance those two things, and unfortunately for many of the bishops in the United States, they focus very heavily on the issue of abortion and because of that they have been brought into the circles of evangelicals,” said James Carroll, professor of history at Iona College.

Just days after Biden’s visit to the Vatican, the Supreme Court will start oral arguments to review Texas’s six-week abortion ban, which the Department of Justice says violates the court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.

In Ohio this week, state Attorney General Dave Yost (R) filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration seeking to restore a Trump-era ban on abortion referrals that was overturned earlier in October. The overturned measures required federally funded family planning clinics to be independent of abortion clinics and mandate that they don’t refer patients for abortions.

Meanwhile, the president didn’t include the Hyde amendment in his proposed 2022 budget, which was hailed by reproductive rights groups, and Senate Democrats for the first time in decades left it out of their annual government funding bills.

Some U.S. bishops, namely San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, have said they would deny communion to pro-abortion rights Catholic politicians such as Biden or Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Meanwhile, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of D.C., whom Francis elevated to the role, has said Biden can receive communion in his jurisdiction.

Church law doesn’t allow for national policies, so even if, following the November release of the teaching document, the bishops vote to deny pro-abortion rights politicians communion, it would need approval from the Vatican, which is highly unlikely.

The division between some U.S. bishops and the Vatican has made the relationship between the pope and Biden stronger, Faggioli argued.

“There are many differences, not just on abortion, but on many issues between Pope Francis and Joe Biden but the fact that they share their enemies have made them allies,” Faggioli said. “They face the same opposition from conservative Catholics and from the Republican Party.”

Despite the backlash from some U.S. bishops towards Biden, a meeting between the pope and the president is tradition and standard protocol.

“There is nothing that is extraordinary or extra,” Faggioli said. “Of course, that stands out in the eyes of Catholics in this country that are told constantly that Joe Biden isn’t a Catholic, he should be excommunicated. From the Vatican, what is happening is absolutely normal.”

Tags Barack Obama Jake Sullivan Jen Psaki Jill Biden Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Pope Francis
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video