Francis and Biden: Will Friday’s Meeting Echo Previous Papal Encounters With Presidents?

A look back at President Kennedy’s historic visit in 1963 and President Obama’s meeting with Benedict XVI in 2009.

A Swiss Guard salutes as President Barack Obama arrives at the Vatican to meet with Pope Benedict XVI on July 10, 2009,
A Swiss Guard salutes as President Barack Obama arrives at the Vatican to meet with Pope Benedict XVI on July 10, 2009, (photo: Franco Origlia / Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — They can often be overhyped, but visits by U.S. Presidents to the Vatican still tend to be media spectacles, heavily scrutinized down to the slightest detail with sentences carefully parsed and deciphered. 

That usual level of scrutiny is expected to be heightened even more when President Joe Biden becomes only the second Catholic president and the 14th American head of state to visit the Vatican on Friday. 

Issues pertaining to the intersection of faith and politics and respect for the dignity of all human life are expected to attract the most attention in light of the Biden administration’s radical pro-abortion and pro-gender ideology policies, and the U.S. bishops’ concerns over Biden continuing to seek to receive Holy Communion. 

Such distressing policy differences between a pope and a Catholic president were absent when President John F. Kennedy came to the Vatican as the first Catholic president and met the just-crowned Pope Paul VI on July 2, 1963, a decade before Roe v Wade. 

Commentators then were musing less about the content of the president’s and the Pope’s statements than what the visuals might be, according to reports. Would JFK kneel down and kiss the Fisherman’s ring, or keep a distance to honor the principle of separation of Church and State? 

The matter was especially sensitive given concerns at the time, primarily among Evangelicals and Southern Baptists, that Catholic presidential candidates would have dual and competing loyalties to both the Vatican and the United States. In the end, Paul VI welcomed Kennedy with open arms, the president gave a slight nod of the head, and the kiss of the papal ring was replaced by a solemn shake of the hands. 

Disappointing for many was that the meeting itself was low-key, informal and unofficial, and originally billed as a “private” meeting — apparently a wish of both parties, possibly in view of some remaining and hardened anti-Catholic sentiment back home. (A similar commotion has erupted over the Vatican’s decision to restrict media coverage on Friday.)  

But this didn’t prevent attention also being paid to other aspects of the historic visit, not least the papal statement that followed the audience: his text was comprehensive, considerably longer than those of today following such encounters, and full of praise for the United States. 

In particular, Paul VI showed special regard for Kennedy’s emphasis on “the higher moral principles of truth, of justice and of liberty” which, he said, were in “a spontaneous harmony” with Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). 

That document, he said, had renewed the Church’s “constant teaching on the dignity of the individual human person, a dignity which the Almighty Creator bestowed in creating man to His own image and likeness.” 

John XXIII had wanted to present Kennedy with a signed copy of Pacem in Terris, but he had died just a month earlier, during the Second Vatican Council. Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston, an old friend of the Kennedys who had stayed on in Rome after Paul VI’s coronation, gave the president the copy instead, when Kennedy visited the Pontifical North American College later that morning. 

Kennedy was accompanied on his visit by, among others, his younger sister Jean (who stood in for the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy), Secretary of State Dean Rusk, speechwriter Ted Sorensen, and JFK’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger.  


Barack Obama’s 2009 Visit

Papal audiences with U.S. presidents at the Vatican are always cordial but tensions over policy differences can often take center stage, especially in the media. 

Of the more recent presidential visits, this was especially visible during President Barack Obama’s visit to Pope Benedict XVI on July 10, 2009 — a visit arguably the most comparable to Biden’s Vatican meeting on Friday.

In the seven months that had passed since Obama’s inauguration, much had been written about his abortion record, fueling concerns that he was becoming the most radical anti-life president in U.S. history. Matters weren’t helped by sympathetic editorials in L’Osservatore Romano that brushed off these policies.  

Benedict XVI wasted no time in raising them. In a statement, the Vatican said that in the course of their “cordial exchanges,” the conversation turned “first of all to questions which are in the interests of all, and which constitute a great challenge for the future of every nation and for the true progress of peoples, such as the defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one’s conscience.”

Benedict also didn’t stop there: He also unexpectedly gave Obama a copy of Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of the Person), a Vatican document on “certain bioethical questions” that had just been published and explained the Church’s position on abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and other life issues. 

Benedict also wanted it made known after the meeting that Obama had told him of his commitment “to reduce the number of abortions,” while the administration said Obama pledged to introduce a “robust conscience clause” to protect Catholic doctors and others from having to act against their faith. 

In the end, however Benedict XVI’s fairly direct approach fell on deaf ears in terms of policy shifts, and all eyes will be on whether Francis’ emphasis on “closeness, compassion and tenderness” will yield greater results.  

The White House has sought to pre-empt and possibly mitigate controversy by saying earlier this month that Biden and the Pope would “discuss working together on efforts grounded in respect for fundamental human dignity,” as well as “ending the COVID-19 pandemic, tackling the climate crisis, and caring for the poor.” 

Friday’s meeting will take place in the apostolic palace at noon and is expected to last up to an hour.