Under President Biden, Vatican-US Relations Are Poised to Shift Dramatically

NEWS ANALYSIS: The new US administration is aligned with Pope Francis’ Vatican priorities in areas like immigration and environmental policy, but at odds with foundational Church teachings on abortion and gender ideology.

Pope Francis and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the International Conference on Regenerative Medicine in Vatican City on April 29, 2016.
Pope Francis and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the International Conference on Regenerative Medicine in Vatican City on April 29, 2016. (photo: Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — When President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated today to become only the second Catholic to hold the highest office in the land, a new set of challenges will face the Holy See in its relations with the United States, ones likely to be greater and more complex than those of the past four years.

On the surface, relations seem to be expected to run more smoothly: Pope Francis and senior Vatican officials had implicitly favored a Biden victory in November over President Donald Trump with whom there were clear differences.

Francis was one of the first leaders to congratulate the new president by phone, before Trump had conceded, and in December the Holy Father adopted a popular slogan also used by the Biden campaign to “build back better” — read as a further endorsement of the result.

Some commentators accuse the political left of being chiefly responsible for fomenting current divisions, yet Vatican officials close to the Pope principally see Biden as a unifier, someone who will “build bridges” in contrast to how they saw his predecessor. 

In an interview published soon after the election, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a close aide to Pope Francis and strong critic of the U.S. conservative-religious right, said he believed Biden has the desire to “hold together” a “strongly polarized” U.S. society and that the diversity of his party will help to achieve “unity and reconciliation.” 

Biden has invited outgoing Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, among others, to a church service on Wednesday just before the inauguration, although how much these gestures are precursors to concrete efforts to reach across the political aisle remains to be seen.  

Beyond the Vatican’s generally favorable perception of Biden, he is a proponent of a number of social policies that this pontificate also supports, the most significant being combating climate change, multilateralism, immigration reform, opposition to capital punishment, welfare for the poor, and a softer approach to China. 

Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Development, told the Register Jan. 20 that he has found Biden “outstanding” on these issues, and believes he was possibly “inspired by the Church’s social thought.”  


Areas of Alignment

A number of these aligning positions, including a clear disdain for Trump’s populist politics, were plainly expressed in Pope Francis’ social encyclical Fratelli Tutti (“Brothers All”), published just a month before the Nov. 3 election and to which Biden favorably referred during his campaign. 

One of the clearest positions concerns migrant policy. The administration reportedly plans to unveil a sweeping immigration bill on the first day of office that would propose an eight-year path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants — a policy closely aligning with the position of Pope Francis, who has often argued for looser immigration policies, including the regularizing of undocumented migrants as well as his frequent castigation of President Trump’s border wall. The Pope also called in Fratelli Tutti for “full citizenship” of migrants.

Another policy the Pope and senior Vatican officials applaud is Biden’s environmental agenda (he has appointed a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to be director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy), and in particular that he pledged on Day One of his administration to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accords (Father Spadaro called the pledge “important” as it would be “in line” with the Pope’s 2015 environmental encyclical, Laudato Si).In a further nod to multilateralism that the Vatican supports, he will have the U.S. rejoin the World Health Organization, which Trump said the U.S. would leave last July. 

The decisions to leave both were part of Trump’s aggressive approach to China, one which Biden opposed, preferring that the communist country be cajoled to “play by the rules” rather than having sanctions placed upon it. Again, such a line is congruent with the Vatican’s accommodating approach to the People’s Republic, an approach that, despite China’s persecution of Christians and its much-criticized human rights record, prefers controversially to engage the nation rather than isolate it. In Biden, the Holy See sees a more willing partner than Trump to support its agreements with Beijing, although new Secretary of State Antony Blinken has recently expressed a willingness to maintain Trump’s approach to trade and human rights in China.

Biden opposes the death penalty but only since June 2019, months after Pope Francis amended the catechism to declare capital punishment “inadmissible.” In 1994, then-Sen. Biden had sponsored a bill to expand the death penalty to cover 60 crimes. Now his position configures closely with that of Pope Francis, who said in Fratelli Tutti “there can be no stepping back” from opposition to the death penalty and the wish to abolish it. 

Vatican officials are expected to also welcome the appointments of some perceived “moderates” in the administration, such as Jake Sullivan, a Catholic who will become national security adviser, and Secretary of State Blinken, who is Jewish and married to Evan Ryan, an Irish American Catholic, whom Biden has chosen to serve as White House cabinet secretary.  


Areas of Disagreement

But a number of areas are expected to pose significant challenges to Holy See-U.S. relations, particularly regarding life issues. 

From defunding Planned Parenthood and expanding the Mexico City Policy to appointing pro-life justices on the Supreme Court and becoming the first sitting president to take part in the March for Life, Trump was regarded by many as the most pro-life president in U.S. history.

By contrast, President-elect Biden, whose campaign was heavily backed by abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood, is viewed as the polar opposite and is expected to rollback several of the Trump administration’s policies in this area. 

In 2019, Biden suddenly reversed his support for the Hyde Amendment that bans federal funding for most abortion. He is also an unapologetic proponent of LGBT rights (in 2016 as vice president he officiated a “wedding” for a same-sex couple who had worked as longtime White House staffers) and a supporter of gender ideology. On Tuesday it was announced he had tapped Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine, a biological man who identifies as a transgender woman to be his assistant secretary of health. 

“Despite the common ground between the Holy See and the Biden administration on issues like immigration, climate change, and relations with China, I am not hopeful about relations,” said Father John Wauck , a Rome-based priest who once wrote speeches for Democratic and Republican politicians. 

Recalling how USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez noted last November that Biden’s election placed the bishops’ in a very complicated position, Father Wauck told the Register that he believed “the same could be said for the Holy See.” 

He highlighted in particular the Pope’s public opposition to abortion, citing a recent interview in which he compared abortionists to hired assassins. 

“Now the president of the United States will be a baptized Catholic who not only works to ensure that the work of those assassins — the brutal killing of the most defenseless members of the human family — is legal, but also wants to force all Americans to help pay for those killings, both at home and abroad, with their taxes,” Father Wauck said. 

Father Wauck also noted that Francis, who has described “gay marriage” as a ploy of the devil to destroy God’s plan for the family, will now have to deal with the new U.S. Catholic president “who not only works in favor of that diabolical ploy, but, as vice president, actually performed a ‘marriage’ of two men.”

He added that Biden potentially also threatens religious freedom, pledging, for example, to fight hard to roll back conscience protections for the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious employers who object to providing contraceptives. 

Church leaders in Africa have also expressed concern about the appointment of Samantha Power, an ardent supporter of “LGBT” rights, as the new head of USAID, and believe it will lead to a cultural, ideological and Christian onslaught on the continent. 

“On issues such as these, the Biden administration will aggressively promote the world-wide ‘ideological colonization’ that Pope Francis has frequently criticized, and — in the international forum — that will inevitably put a strain on relations,” Father Wauck said. 


Biden’s Catholicism

But inside sources believe Biden’s Catholicism may temper these policies. The senator’s faith has been formed through suffering: the deaths of his wife and two of his children, his stuttering disability, and a wayward son. 

His political views on key non-negotiable issues clearly depart from the magisterium, and he separates his faith, which is evidently very personal to him, from his politics. The Church teaches that a politician who publicly supports legal protection for abortion and receives Holy Communion places his and other souls in danger, but his supporters insist Biden is unmistakably devout, reputedly attending daily Mass since he lost his first wife and daughter in a car accident in 1972, and wearing a wrist rosary that he prays regularly. 

He is particularly close to the Society of Jesus: Jesuit Father Leo O'Donovan, a former president of Georgetown University, will deliver the invocation at the inauguration (Biden wrote the foreword to Father O’Donovan’s 2018 book, Blessed Are the Refugees: Beatitudes of Immigrant Children) and prominent Jesuits were also publicly supportive of his campaign. 

This close alliance, together with his eventual choice to be his ambassador to the Holy See, is likely to influence his dealings with the Church’s first Jesuit pontiff and a Holy See where Jesuits take leading roles behind the scenes. 

Cardinal Turkson acknowledged the concern over Biden’s pro-abortion views, but said he could see Biden, on account of his Catholicism, “not wanting to engage” in pro-abortion politics and believes the Church “can work with him to probably find a middle way.” That means the Church “evangelizing the Democratic position,” he said, while at the same “recognizing what a lot of people are calling for.” 

He added that Biden's positions on abortion and other policies contrary to Church teaching are rooted in “not having done our work as a Church.” This has allowed “certain tendencies to become main features of our societies” and enabled a leader to emerge who represents them.

He said, “This is the challenge we see happening.”