US Catholics React to Biden’s Claim That Pope Francis Told Him to Keep Receiving Communion
If the president’s account is accurate, last week’s meeting represented a major setback for the many Catholics who had hoped the Holy Father would challenge Biden’s strong support for abortion.
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden, the United States’ second commander in chief to identify as Catholic, was preparing for his trip to Rome for the G20 Summit when Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, petitioned Pope Francis via Twitter.
“Dear Pope Francis, You have boldly stated that abortion is ‘murder,’” read Bishop Tobin’s Oct. 27 tweet. “Please challenge President Biden on this critical issue. His persistent support of abortion is an embarrassment for the Church and a scandal to the world. Thank you. Very respectfully, Your brother +Thomas.”
It is not known whether Bishop Tobin’s tweet reached Pope Francis. But the message from Rome regarding the Pope’s actual pastoral guidance to Biden was surely a profound disappointment for the Rhode Island bishop — at least if he accepted the president’s account of the 75-minute private audience.
Speaking with reporters after his Oct. 29 visit to the Apostolic Palace, Biden said Francis called him a “good Catholic” and advised him to keep receiving Holy Communion.
When asked to confirm Biden’s comments, the Holy See’s spokesman, Matteo Bruni, told reporters that the exchange was “a private conversation.” The Vatican’s official summary of the topics covered by the two world leaders focused on climate change, the pandemic and care for migrants, saying nothing about abortion.
Absent further clarification from the Vatican, Bishop Tobin registered his dawning frustration in an Oct. 29 tweet.
“I fear that the Church has lost its prophetic voice,” tweeted Bishop Tobin. “Where are the John the Baptists who will confront the Herods of our day?”
Coming just weeks before the U.S. bishops were scheduled to debate a draft document on Eucharistic coherence at their annual assembly in Baltimore, the Pope’s response to Biden carried added significance, as Francis appeared to clearly side with prelates like Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., who has said he will not prevent lawmakers backing abortion rights from receiving the Eucharist.
“The Pope is strong on the evil of abortion, and yet at the same time he seems to be lax on confronting politicians [like Biden] on these issues,” Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, the former chief of staff for the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, told the Register. “That makes it more difficult for bishops who have such politicians in their diocese. He pulls the rug out from under them.”
Father Weinandy registered his own concerns about Francis’ approach and the impact it could have on the faithful’s already-weak grasp of the meaning and gift of the Eucharist.
“Discipline flows from doctrine: There should not be a disconnect between the two. That is where the confusion comes,” he said.
Russell Shaw, the author of Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and a past spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted the likely political ramifications for Biden.
“It guarantees that he will get no more collective criticism from the U.S. bishops,” Shaw told the Register. “To the extent that the American bishops presented a problem for him up to this time, they don’t anymore.”
However, some commentators and leaders were skeptical about Biden’s description of the papal audience.
“The White House has said the question of abortion did not come up” and that the president and Francis “talked about climate change and refugees,” Robert Royal, the editor of The Catholic Thing website, told the Register. Yet the White House “implies that the Pope said Biden is a ‘good Catholic.’ So how could the issue not have come up?”
Some media outlets also appeared puzzled by the fact that Biden freely shared sensitive remarks from the Pope regarding his worthiness to receive the Eucharist, but when asked to divulge the moral guidance on the same subject provided by bishops back home, the president said such exchanges were “private,” and so off limits for a news conference.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco raised additional questions.
“I have been in situations where I said one thing and people heard something else because that is what they wanted to hear,” Archbishop Cordileone told the Register. “What Pope Francis said and what he meant would both be important.”
The archbishop noted that Francis has been “consistent” in his strong opposition to the destruction of unborn human life dating back to his tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires. Still, he acknowledged that some of the Pope’s recent statements suggested he would not bar Biden, who has made abortion-rights advocacy the centerpiece of his administration, from receiving the Eucharist.
“There is a consistency in Pope Francis’ past statements” condemning abortion, said Archbishop Cordileone.
“More recently, you might interpret” his comments on this subject as a “divergence” from Franics’ past record, he said.
The San Francisco archbishop specifically noted the 2007 “Aparecida document” issued by Central and South American episcopal conferences, with significant input from then-Archbishop Jorge Bergolio of Buenos Aires. That document underscored the need for “Eucharistic coherence” and concluded that lawmakers and heads of state should not receive Communion if they are implicated in the “abominable crimes of abortion and euthanasia.”
During in-flight pressers and other opportunities for off-the-cuff exchanges with reporters, Francis has been clear and unequivocal in his strong opposition to direct abortion.
“Is it legitimate to take out a human life to solve a problem?” Francis asked during an address at a 2019 Vatican conference examining the ethics of prenatal diagnosis and the targeted destruction of unborn human life found to be defective. “Is it permissible to contract a hitman to solve a problem?”
The Pope’s Pastoral Perspectives
But his views regarding Church discipline are murkier and harder to pin down. And his suggestion that pastoral sensitivity would or should discourage specific actions that seek to prevent scandal or confusion, say his critics, leaves Catholics who support abortion rights convinced that the Church does not actually view participation in abortion as a grave moral evil.
During his return flight to Rome after a four-day trip to Hungary and Slovakia in mid-September, for example, he told reporters that abortion is “murder.”
At the same time, Francis confirmed that he had “never refused the Eucharist to anyone” who publicly advocated for abortion as an elected political leader. And then he conditioned that statement with a caveat: He did not know of any instance when someone with that profile had presented themselves to him at the altar rail.
During that in-flight presser, Francis continued to explore the subject from various angles. In the “history of the Church, we will see that every time the bishops have not managed a problem as pastors, they have taken a political stance on a political problem,” he observed.
“What must the pastor do?” he asked. “Be a pastor; don’t go condemning. Be a pastor, because he is a pastor also for the excommunicated.”
The Holy Father’s comments were interpreted by some news outlets as a rebuke to the U.S. bishops, who have approved the preparation of a document on Eucharistic coherence that will restate and celebrate the Church’s perennial teaching on the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of the Christian life.
On Nov. 2, a leaked copy of the 26-page draft was published by The Pillar website. At present, the draft does not single out Catholic politicians who back abortion rights, but that could change by the time the final draft is submitted to a vote by the assembly of bishops later this month.
In one section of the draft document, the authors address the need for conversion of heart and Church discipline guiding reception of the Eucharist. They acknowledge that every person is a sinner who stumbles as they seek to fulfill their Christian vocation in this world.
"We trust in [the Lord’s] mercy, the mercy which we behold in His body broken for us and His blood poured out for us for the forgiveness of our sins,” reads the text, which is situated in a section dealing with conversion.
“While all our failures to do what is right damage our communion with God and each other, they fall into different categories, reflecting different degrees of severity,” the draft document continues.
“There are some sins, however,” states the document “that do rupture the communion we share with God and the Church.”
“As the Church has consistently taught, a person who receives Holy Communion while in a state of mortal sin not only does not receive the grace of the sacrament, he or she commits the sin of sacrilege by failing to show the reverence due to the Body and Blood of Christ.”
Last spring, after the Vatican intervened in the U.S. bishops’ initial deliberations on the subject, the conference leadership agreed that their focus would be on Church doctrine and discipline, with no specific guidance preventing Catholic politicians like Biden from presenting themselves for Holy Communion.
The Secular Media Narrative
Nevertheless, many secular reporters have continued to frame the issue as a dispute between a progressive-minded papal reformer and a hidebound American episcopacy.
In the wake of Biden’s visit with Francis, news stories described the president as an ally of a beleaguered pope facing “resistance” from U.S. bishops. And a New York Times story concluded that “the Pope’s apparently explicit encouragement for Mr. Biden to continue taking communion could be one of the most tangible accomplishments that the president brings home.”
“It’s not surprising that Biden, who describes himself as a devout Catholic, would be eager to associate himself with the pontiff,” said former Illinois Congressman Daniel Lipinski, in an Oct. 28 column for The Washington Post that flagged the Pope’s “favorability rating of 82% among the country’s 70 million Catholics and 63% among Americans overall.”
But Lipinski, a pro-life Democrat who credited his 2020 primary defeat to a concerted progressive campaign to remove pro-life lawmakers from the party, disputed Democrats’ claims that Pope Francis supported their “side.”
There is a “direct conflict between many of the party’s policies and the teachings of the Catholic Church, especially those regarding the preeminent issues of life and human dignity,” said Lipinski.
Lila Rose, the Catholic leader of the pro-life organization Live Action, went further, telling the Register that Catholics need to be savvy about the “media bias” that shaped the recent coverage of Biden’s trip to Rome.
“We should not be caught up in the game of aligning Catholicism with a president who is in defiant rebellion against his own faith,” said Rose.
“As Catholics, we need to find confidence in the magisterium of the Church which is … clear on the sin of abortion and on not receiving the Holy Eucharist when you are in the state of sin.”
U.S. Church leaders have also rejected the media’s negative characterization of their relationship with the Pope and of their efforts to dispel the confusion that Biden’s public stance has generated.
“The media uses the term ‘conservative bishops,’ and one article implied that those who want to go ahead with the document [on Eucharistic coherence] are the Pope’s ‘enemies’” noted Archbishop Cordileone.
“This language is terrible, and it infects the way our people [approach Church teaching]. They begin to think in political terms about the faith, and that causes a wider problem and a great challenge for us bishops.”
Asked why some progressive commentators and operatives appear eager to exploit internal divisions within the Church, the archbishop replied, “The Church is the only thing in their way. And people do get confused when someone who goes to Communion thinks abortion is fine. [It suggests] it must be acceptable to belive that.”
Chad Pecknold, a theologian at The Catholic University of America, acknowledged a clear “tension between the Pope not wishing to have any conflict with Catholic politicians in any country and bishops who have a real pastoral responsibility” to engage public figures who openly defy Church teaching.
Pecknold suggested that the Pope’s approach hinges on his desire to engage “neo-liberal elites” by collaborating on issues of common concern and slowly drawing them into a dialogue with the Church.
It’s an approach that emphasizes accompaniment and inculturation, he said, and it is characteristic of the Society of Jesus’ long-view model of evangelizing China’s Imperial Court in past centuries.
“The Pope affirms Church teaching on abortion,” said Pecknold. “But when it comes to working with elites, there is zero desire to mention it.
“He has surrounded himself with Jesuits. And the famous saying about Jesuits is that they bring people in through their door and lead them out through Christ’s door.
“With a Curia well-staffed by Jesuits and advised by Jesuits and a pope who is Jesuit,” he added, “it would make sense that they would follow that strategy of first evangelizing by accommodating yourself to their priorities and then slowly introducing things that are germane to the Gospel.”
Nevertheless, Pecknold did not expect the events in Rome to have a decisive impact on the U.S. bishops’ deliberations on the Eucharist.
“The Pope is the universal pastor,” he said.
“But the principle of subsidiarity would say it is the local bishop who has [direct] responsibility.”
“When the Pope speaks with Biden or any other Catholic world leader, it is not a meeting with a man and his pastor, but a meeting of two heads of state,” he observed.
Yet as Church leaders and grassroots pro-life leaders reflect back on Francis’ pontificate, they point to many key moments when his pastoral gifts and message made a difference in local dioceses.
Marianne Luthin, who leads the Archdiocese of Boston’s pro-life office, remembers the Year of Mercy and Francis’ decision to direct priests to absolve the sin of abortion as a major inflection point that brought women who had “self-ex-communicated” themselves back to confession. Likewise, Francis made waves when he exhorted pastors to leave their rectories and transform the Church into a “field hospital” for sinners. At present, the Pope may view his engagement with Biden as another important step in this broader mission of evangelization though pastoral accompaniment.
Biden ‘Won This Round’
But the confused and often politicized reaction to this meeting in the United States has left some Catholic leaders like Bishop Tobin fearful that the Church is in danger of losing its prophetic voice as the culture of death advances in the corridors of power.
Russell Shaw expressed similar concerns as he pondered the interplay of partisan media narratives and internal Church politics.
Reflecting on Biden’s account of his meeting with Francis, Shaw worries that Catholics and the public at large may assume that doctrine and pastoral practice are on “separate tracks.”
“Most of us would say they should be together, and one should reflect the other,” he said.
“The doctrine on abortion is extremely clear. But when dealing with someone in Biden’s position, Francis seems to feel that pastoral practice can proceed independently of the doctrine and that the two may not converge.”
Shaw expects the U.S. bishops to produce a document on Eucharistic coherence that “will not go after Biden, but will provide a general pastoral statement about the place of the Eucharist in our lives and our worthiness to receive it.” The leaked draft document confirms his expectations.
Then stepping back to consider the political takeaway for Biden from last week’s encounter with the Pope, Shaw suggested that the nation’s second Catholic president “won this round.” In other words, Biden will continue to assert his belief that a political leader who green-lights a “whole-of- government” defense of Roe v. Wade may also receive Holy Communion at Sunday Mass, a major win for his struggling administration.
“I don’t think the Pope was even competing,” said Shaw. “He just handed it to him.”
- joan frawley desmond
- chad pecknold
- lila rose of live action
- russell shaw
- holy communion
- biden, catholic
- pope francis