Biden is aligned with the pontiff on many central issues, including climate change and economic disparities. But the question of whether he should receive Communion — which is likely to come to a boil when bishops hold their annual meeting in November — has set off an awkward dynamic, not just between Biden and the church but also between Francis and American Catholic leaders.
“I don’t think the issue of the Eucharist will dominate the meeting,” said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University professor of theology who has written a book on Biden and Catholicism. “But for American Catholics who follow the debate, this will send a message that this pope — who has a very critical view of American culture — is protecting the sacramental life of the president of the United States.”
Biden is probably the most observant president in decades, regularly attending Mass. He has been tight-lipped about the possibility of being denied the Eucharist. In the meantime, he receives Communion in Washington, where the archbishop, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, believes the sacred rite should not be denied even when there are philosophical disagreements.
Francis and Biden have met several times, including when Biden was vice president during the Obama administration. Their longest time together was in September 2015, during Francis’s visit to the United States, when Biden and his wife had a private meeting with the pope and accompanied him on much of his nearly week-long journey, even bidding him farewell at the airport in Philadelphia. They met again in April 2016, when Biden attended a Vatican conference on regenerative medicine.
When Biden became president, the pope’s message — asking him to help foster “understanding, reconciliation and peace within the United States” and abroad — was considerably more welcoming than the message from American bishops, which was confrontational on the issue of abortion. That statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Biden had “pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life.”
“Today, the nation’s second Catholic president receives criticism, from both Protestants and Catholics, that he is too independent of the Church, specifically on abortion,” Campbell said in an email. “However, by meeting with the Pope, President Biden can reinforce his Catholic identity, which he speaks of eloquently and often. Furthermore, a well-publicized visit to the Vatican by the president complicates the efforts of some American bishops to deny him communion.”