(RNS) When Vice President Joe Biden is honored at commencement exercises next month at the University of Notre Dame, he will arrive amid sharp criticisms over his appearance.
Even the local bishop in Indiana said the icon of Catholic higher education in the U.S. is “wrong” to give a platform to a Catholic politician who supports abortion rights and gay marriage.
But it may be a sign of the shifting dynamics in the Catholic Church that Biden was welcomed on Friday (April 29) to the Vatican to address a church-sponsored conference on cutting-edge therapies to treat diseases such as cancer, and he was warmly greeted by the local bishop of Rome, aka Pope Francis.
Biden in turn praised the pontiff, and noted that Francis met with him and his family during the pope's visit to the U.S. last September and “provided us with more comfort than even he I think will ever understand” after the death of Biden’s eldest son, Beau, who succumbed to brain cancer nearly a year ago.
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And while the conference’s themes -- stem cell research and “regenerative medicine” -- deal with a host of ethical issues with the potential for controversy, the two leaders in their respective speeches focused on better access to the best treatments for all people, regardless of economic status.
Promising new treatments that are emerging every year cannot be available “only to the privileged and the powerful,” Biden told some of the 350 top cell therapy doctors, researchers, philanthropists, ethicists and activists who gathered in a huge Vatican audience hall.
Among the recognizable names at the three-day conference, which focuses on cell therapy techniques, were TV personality Katie Couric, whose husband died of colon cancer, as well as digital mogul Sean Parker and U2 rock band guitarist The Edge -- also known as David Evans -- whose daughter battled leukemia.
In the wake of Beau Biden’s death, President Obama tapped his vice president to lead a new U.S. “Cancer Moonshot Initiative” aimed at finding cures and treatments for the various forms of the disease, and Biden’s personal passion emerged during his Vatican talk.
In his remarks, he called for far greater international coordination on cancer research and data-sharing to promote breakthroughs and get the information to doctors and patients. “Treatments have to be affordable,” he said, and research should not be held behind paywalls and in laboratories while people suffer.
“Why do you wait?” Biden asked, his voice rising and reflecting a common frustration over the slow pace in pushing out new research. “What is the rationale?”
Francis followed Biden’s talk and in a similar vein stressed the importance of “access to care.”
The pontiff said the world needs to oppose “an economy of exclusion and inequality," one that he said “victimizes people when the mechanism of profit prevails over the value of human life.”
“This is why the globalization of indifference must be countered by the globalization of empathy” for all, he said, regardless of race, religion or social standing. He added that there must be “an economic paradigm shift” in order to secure universal access to health care.
In a passing reference to controversies over research on embryonic versus adult stem cells, Francis said that medical research “requires unwavering attention to moral issues if it is to be an instrument which safeguards human life and the dignity of the person.”
The conference, which ends Saturday, is hosted by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture and is the third such collaborative conference with the U.S.-based Stem For Life Foundation and the Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest Foundation, a body created with the backing of Rome’s pontifical universities.
While the Catholic Church opposes most stem cell research using embryos, the Obama administration ruled that federal funds could be used for research using stem cells derived from embryos. Whether such research entails the destruction of an embryo remains a topic of hot debate.
The Vatican has been more open to research using adult stem cells. Monsignor Tomasz Trafny, head of the science and faith department at the Pontifical Council for Culture, said one of the aims of the conference was to highlight research developments on adult stem cells.
“We want to look at those which are ethically just, ethically correct,” Trafny told journalists on Tuesday.
Robin Smith, president of the Stem for Life Foundation, said she has observed a shift in recent years with the rise of adult trials over embryonic research. “The science is advancing much more rapidly in adult stem cells,” she said.
Biden and Francis have met several times and the two seem to hit it off, so the vice president’s encounter with the pontiff is not that surprising.
(He also met with the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to discuss what the White House said was “the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities across the Middle East, with a focus on the abuses perpetrated by ISIS in Iraq and Syria.")
Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican Council for Culture, said earlier this week that Biden’s presence “has no political meaning in the strict sense, but it has a political meaning in a noble sense.”
But the fact that Biden was invited to address a Vatican conference on medical ethics, and that his visit follows on the heels of an address at the Vatican on economics by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, seems to signal a shift away from political confrontation and toward engagement since Francis was elected pope in 2013.
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(Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” also stayed overnight at the Vatican guesthouse and briefly met the pope.)
The more confrontational mode still regularly manifests itself, however, such as when Notre Dame announced in March that it would award the Laetare Medal -- perhaps the most prestigious award given to lay Catholics -- to Biden and his longtime political foe and personal friend former House Speaker John Boehner, also Catholic.
The university's president, the Rev. John Jenkins, said the joint honor -- to be conferred at the May 15 commencement -- aimed to highlight their constructive political approach and would serve as a rebuke to the ugliness of today’s politics.
But Catholic conservatives and opponents of abortion rights and gay marriage quickly denounced the decision to honor Biden. They say his positions on those matters are more serious violations of Catholic teachings than some of Boehner’s positions on other problematic issues.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., said in a lengthy statement that “it is wrong for Notre Dame to honor any 'pro-choice' public official with the Laetare Medal.”
On the other hand, the outrage over Biden’s appearance seems more muted than past controversies and is nothing compared to the uproar in 2009 when Notre Dame gave Obama an honorary degree.
Perhaps the “Francis effect” has something to do with it.
As the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and analyst at National Catholic Reporter, wrote: “If the Vatican with a clear conscience can invite these politicians to speak, why can’t Catholic colleges and universities?
“It is time to admit that the ban on giving platforms and honors to people who hold views contrary to church teaching is dead,” Reese concluded.
(Rosie Scammell contributed to this story from Rome)