President Joe Biden said Friday that Pope Francis told him he was a “good Catholic” who could get the Eucharist, widening the chasm between Francis and conservative American bishops who want to deny it because of Biden’s support for abortion rights.
Biden and the Pope had an unusually long, 75-minute meeting at the Vatican as debate raged back home over the issue.
Asked if the topic of abortion had come up, Biden told reporters, “No, it hasn’t… We just talked about the fact that he’s glad I’m a good Catholic and should continue to receive Communion.”
The president, who goes to weekly masses regularly and keeps a picture of the pope behind his desk in the Oval Office, said he personally opposes abortion but cannot impose his views as an elected leader.
In June, a divided conference of American Roman Catholic bishops voted on a draft statement about the communion that some bishops say should specifically target Catholic politicians, including Biden. They will take up the issue again next month.
But the Pope’s comments to Biden, who revealed them at a photo opportunity with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, may make it impossible for the bishops to follow through on their plans.
Asked if he and the Pope had discussed the issue of American bishops, Biden said, “This is a private conversation.”
Biden’s most ardent critics of the American church hierarchy doubled down on their strength before the visit.
“Dear Pope Francis, you have boldly stated that abortion is ‘murder’. Please challenge President Biden on this crucial issue. His continued support for abortion is an embarrassment to the Church and a scandal to the world,” Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, said in a tweet.
Last month, the Pope told reporters that abortion was “murder” but appeared to criticize US Catholic bishops for handling the issue in a political rather than a pastoral way.
“Communion is not a prize for perfection … Communion is a gift … the presence of Christ and his Church,” the pope said, adding that bishops should use “sympathy and tenderness” with Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.
Since his election in 2013 as Latin America’s first pope, Francis has said that while the Church should oppose abortion, the issue should not become a draining battle in culture wars that distract from things like immigration and poverty.
Biden’s meeting with the Pope came three days before the US Supreme Court is due to hear the first of two major cases this year challenging a series of state laws backed by Biden’s Republican rivals that limit abortion rights. Abortion opponents hope the court will overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized the procedure nationwide.
The White House and Vatican statement did not mention the abortion issue.
The White House said Biden thanked the Pope for his “calling for the world’s poor, those who suffer from hunger, conflict and persecution.” Biden also praised “the Pope’s leadership in combating the climate crisis, as well as his call to ensure an end to the pandemic for all through the sharing of vaccines and an equitable global economic recovery.”
The Vatican said the two discussed “care for the planet,” health care, the pandemic, refugees and migrants, and “protection of human rights, including freedom of religion and conscience.”
The Vatican said the private meeting lasted an hour and 15 minutes and then took about another 15 minutes to take pictures and exchange gifts in the presence of other members of the delegation, such as Biden’s wife Jill.
The meeting with former President Donald Trump in 2017 lasted about 30 minutes and the meeting with Barack Obama in 2014 took about 50 minutes.
Biden gave the Pope a “leadership coin” sometimes given to soldiers and commanders and told him, “You are the most important warrior for peace I have ever met.”