Prominent Dissenting Catholics Find Open Doors, Muted Publicity at Vatican

The Vatican’s handling of prominent U.S. Catholic politicians has noticeably loosened.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden attends the International Conference on Regenerative Medicine, a conference organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture, in Vatican City on April 29, 2016.
Then-Vice President Joe Biden attends the International Conference on Regenerative Medicine, a conference organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture, in Vatican City on April 29, 2016. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez / CNA/EWTN News)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is usually wary of publicizing papal private audiences with prominent Catholics whose public life is clearly at odds with non-negotiable areas of Church teaching — a policy that was applied to an audience that was granted in 2011 to then-Vice President Joe Biden.

Details of these meetings often come to light after they take place, such as Pope Benedict XVI’s famous audience in Castel Gandolfo with dissenting Swiss theologian Father Hans Küng in 2005, or his audience the same year with the late controversial atheist author Oriana Fallaci, which was never publicly announced. 

With Pope Francis, such visits have included his frequent and highly contentious encounters with the atheist Eugenio Scalfari, and various other audiences at his Vatican residence, none of which the Vatican has officially announced unless prompted by the media. 

These have included his meeting with transgender Spaniard Diego Neria Lejárraga in 2015, and with the pro-abortion and pro-contraception Catholic philanthropist Melinda Gates in November 2019 — an encounter kept so secret that, to this day, the Vatican has never publicly acknowledged it. 

In 2011, a similarly secretive meeting at the Vatican took place between Benedict XVI and Biden. 

Despite being the first Catholic to hold the vice-presidential office, Biden’s support for legalized abortion was well known, acting as the most probable reason no official mention was made of the meeting and only a photograph and short caption were published afterward in L’Osservatore Romano. Biden entered the Vatican through a side entrance and Italian media reports later described it as a “strictly private” encounter. 

Two years earlier, a similar private audience took place between Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Benedict XVI after one of the Pope’s weekly general audiences. No photos or reporters were allowed at the brief, 15-minute meeting with Pelosi, a professed Catholic who also supports legalized abortion. The Democratic Speaker afterward spun the meeting by highlighting the positive aspects of the meeting while ignoring Benedict’s strong rebuke of her abortion position.

Since those days, however, the Vatican’s handling of prominent U.S. Catholic politicians has noticeably loosened. The world’s media published photos of a friendly Joe Biden and Pope Francis greeting each other in the Paul VI’s Hall in 2016, when Biden was attending a Vatican conference on new therapies to treat cancer and other illnesses. Biden went on to receive implicitly more favorable papal treatment than his opponent President Donald Trump, both before and after the 2020 presidential election. 

And yet it’s interesting to note a correlation between this more open and welcoming Vatican and papal approach to Biden, and his increasing divergence from the Church’s magisterium on key non-negotiable teachings. As he has become more publicly accepted in Rome, so has he appeared to feel less constrained by those teachings and embarked less than a week into his presidency on arguably the most radical pro-abortion and pro-gender theory agenda ever undertaken, as opposed to the measures to protect nascent human life taken by his predecessor, Donald Trump.

Other influential factors are also no doubt in play, most notably Biden’s alignment with this pontificate’s priorities regarding some other key issues, such as immigration and combating climate change. But much depends on how Rome leads, and in recent years the Vatican has not rebuked Biden for his contrary positions, unlike when Francis criticized Donald Trump’s border wall policy during the 2016 campaign. 

Partly for this reason, therefore, it’s no surprise that the second Catholic president of the United States appears to have no qualms rolling back the many anti-abortion policy achievements of the past four years.

Carrie Gress

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