Officially, in the Vatican they say they are waiting for Joe Biden in Rome next October, on the occasion of the G20 meeting. But unofficially, the diplomacy of the Holy See and the United States chased each other for days, grappling with the hypothesis of a closer meeting in time: even during the US president’s trip to Europe last week. Contrasting versions came from the Secretariat of State and the papal circle. For the former, there was a good chance that on June 14 or June 15, surprisingly, Biden would make a stop in Rome to meet the Pope. At Casa Santa Marta they let it be known that it was an unlikely prospect, given the tight deadlines and the busy schedules of both. The matter remained shrouded in uncertainty for days, evoking a phantom hearing. For at least a month, however, it had been discussed in papal Rome and in Washington, weighing the pros and cons.
The attempt would have been to embed the lightning visit to Rome between the leaders in Brussels and the face to face with Putin on June 16 last. But in the end the hypothesis fell apart, surprising people well versed in Vatican events such as the former president of the EU Commission, Romano Prodi, who on Messenger mentioned the “missed match”. For the moment chosen, the audience would have had too many implications: starting with the divergence over China, after the secret agreement between the Holy See and Beijing renewed for another two years last October. And this while the US administration theorizes a new Cold War in the East. Not only. It would have weighed on tense relations between the Argentine papacy and the American bishops; and on those between Biden’s Democratic Party and the US Bishops’ Conference which on June 18, with 168 yes, 55 no and 6 abstentions, reiterated its intention to draw up a document on the “Eucharistic coherence” of Catholic politicians.
Therefore, included Biden e Nancy Pelosi, president of Congress, who would like to be prevented from taking Communion because I am in favor of the right to abortion. It would mean putting Biden under scrutiny, like the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi; but also ignore papal indications. The Vatican had tried three times to thwart the bishops’ initiative: to no avail. And the tear began to take shape, the result of a long doctrinal and political conflict. It was born from the malaise of a powerful but divided episcopate, with a strong component sided with the outgoing president Donald Trump; and legitimized itself over the years for the “cultural war” against the relativism of the American Democrats. But it is also a consequence of the distance between the Argentine pontificate and the US episcopate. Some of those who in the Conclave of 2013 were Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s “great electors”, eight years later show a coldness that borders on open opposition.
By now, it is hardly clear to what extent Francis is the victim of the all-American clash between the bishops and “their” president, the second Catholic elected after John Fitzgerald Kennedy; or whether in reality it is the other way around. The suspicion is that Biden, with his “liberal” Catholicism, is also being put under pressure to reiterate the dissent against the Pope. The president would become the pretext for sending a message to the Argentine Pontiff, to whom the US Bishops’ Conference accuses a doctrinal strategy that is too open and a source of confusion.
Something similar happened in 2004, when the Democratic Catholic John Kerry ran for the White House, targeted by bishops who stood up for the so-called “non-negotiable values”. The then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the guardian of the orthodoxy of the Catholic faith, and Kerry was the loser.
This time the situation is different, however.
Meanwhile, in Rome there is a Pope who has always reiterated his opposition to abortion, but extends the “non-negotiable principles” to social issues. A second difference is that Biden, a fervent Catholic, personally opposed to abortion, is not just a candidate: he was elected president. The third is that in 2004 the American bishops and the Papacy were united against the Democrats; this time, however, the clash is also between Francis and the bulk of the episcopate. Denying Communion to Biden would mean opening a dispute between the Catholic hierarchy and the White House; and delegitimize the new president: all the more so with almost half of the Catholic voters who voted for Trump. For this reason in the Vatican it is believed that the document, to be prepared by the summer, in the end could be more nuanced. But the story confirms that relations between the Papacy and the US episcopate remain the most difficult, even if discontent is widespread elsewhere.
Among other things, attracting attention only to this conflict risks obscuring the other dossiers between the US and the Vatican. In recent months, post-pandemic global strategies are emerging. It means addressing the problem of the debt of poor countries and universal vaccination. Francis and Biden appear much closer than the Pope was with Trump.
But the question remains in the background, crucialand for Washington, the new Cold War with China and the tensions with the Russian Federation. A Vatican that has renewed its agreement with the communist regime in Beijing while the repression of religious freedom and individual rights is growing, and is still convinced that it is not appropriate to side with the West, inserts a reason for contrast that should not be underestimated. Still, they both want to talk to each other as soon as possible.