WASHINGTON (RNS) — The White House announced Thursday (Oct. 14) that President Joe Biden will meet with Pope Francis at the end of the month, confirming a long-rumored summit between the pontiff and the second Catholic U.S. president.
In a statement, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president and first lady Jill Biden have a scheduled audience with Francis on Oct. 29. Their visit to the Vatican will take place shortly before a G20 Leaders’ Summit slated to convene in Italy that weekend.
“The President and Dr. Biden will also visit Vatican City and have an audience with His Holiness Pope Francis on October 29,” the statement read. “They will discuss working together on efforts grounded in respect for fundamental human dignity, including ending the COVID-19 pandemic, tackling the climate crisis, and caring for the poor.”
Biden, who attended Francis’ inaugural Mass in 2013, has met the pontiff on several occasions and displays a picture of himself with the pope in the Oval Office.
According to Biden, Francis personally consoled the then-vice president’s extended family during the 2015 papal tour of the U.S., after the death of Biden’s son Beau. According to former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Ken Hackett, Francis also offered prayers of encouragement when the two met again a year later in St. Peter’s Basilica.
In 1980, as a young senator, Biden sat with Pope John Paul II for roughly 45 minutes. He also met with Pope Benedict XVI in 2011.
But this month’s meeting with the bishop of Rome will be the first since Biden became president nine months ago — the longest in recent history that an American leader has taken to visit the Vatican.
The encounter will also be remarkable because it comes after members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, citing the president’s stance on abortion, discussed barring Biden from receiving Communion at their June 2021 national meeting. The bishops have commissioned a document addressing Communion and public officials, due to be presented shortly after Biden’s visit to Rome.
Their visit will come just three weeks after Francis met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, another Catholic politician who supports abortion rights, causing consternation among some conservative Catholics.
Biden and Francis are sure to agree on the urgency of tackling climate change, the topic of a 2015 papal exhortation, “Laudato Si’,” and will likely discuss ways to curb the ongoing pandemic. The Vatican has long advocated for suspending certain intellectual property rights in order to more widely distribute COVID-19 vaccines, a position the Biden administration also expressed support for in March — but only after lobbying from various groups, including Catholic organizations.
If the pope has any convincing to do, it may be on Biden’s recent immigration policy. The president’s rhetoric about immigrants and refugees is a sea change from that of his predecessor, but the Biden White House has drawn criticism from faith-based advocates for initially declining to raise the refugee ceiling substantially and for what was widely seen as mistreatment of Haitian immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border.