(RNS) — When President Ronald Reagan visited St. John Paul II in June of 1982 with first lady Nancy Reagan, the press trailed the distinguished group as the pontiff squired the couple and their staffers to the Vatican’s inner sanctums and looked on, according to a New York Times reporter, as “a group of 200 American seminarians and priests suddenly erupted into a prolonged roaring ovation,” followed by choruses of ”America the Beautiful” and ”God Bless America.”
No such display awaits President Joseph Biden as he arrives at the Apostolic Palace on Friday (Oct. 29) to huddle for the first time as president with Pope Francis — or at least not one visible to reporters. Instead, Biden will be greeted in the palace courtyard by a monsignor and taken inside, where the president and the pontiff will exchange greetings out of sight of the public. The press will watch Biden’s entrance from beyond shouting distance, and even the cameras that normally broadcast the pope welcoming world leaders live, the Vatican announced Thursday, will not be rolling.
The unusual clampdown surrounding what is expected to be a roughly hour-long conversation is all the more curious as this pope and president are perhaps more aligned on world affairs than any combination since Reagan met the equally anti-communist, socially conservative John Paul II. And given that Biden is a Catholic, and one who supports abortion rights for women, the odd silence has only stoked interest in what Francis will say, if anything, about the debate among the U.S. Catholic bishops over whether such a president should receive Communion.
What has been the same from before Reagan’s day to now is that the one-on-one meeting between pontiff and president will be off the record, with no published agenda, and will be attended by enthusiastic speculation — something of a sport among Vatican observers — about what exactly they will talk about.
The safe bet this go-round is that climate change will dominate the discussion: Biden’s visit to Europe will also include the COP26 summit of world leaders to discuss climate change in Glasgow, Scotland, next week.
Experts expect Biden and Francis to discuss other overlapping interests such as the plight of migrants and refugees and the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
John Carr, co-director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University and a former staffer at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Catholic teaching on such as issues as abortion and its effect on a dissenting Catholic political figure’s welcome at the Communion rail will be more of a subtext.
“I think it’s implicit, but unlikely to be explicit,” Carr said.
The issue was at the center of a heated debate among clerics at this summer’s USCCB meeting, where some prelates singled out Biden by name while discussing politicians and Communion. The bishops are slated to produce a document on Communion in general next month at their fall conference in Baltimore.
Francis, for his part, addressed the issue on his flight back from Slovakia in mid-September, when he told reporters the sacrament should not be treated as a prize and that he himself had “never denied the Eucharist to anyone!”
Kurt Martens, a canon lawyer and professor at Catholic University of America, noted a tendency among U.S. audiences “to narrow it down to the whole issue of abortion” when it comes to Biden and Catholicism. He stressed that, while abortion remains an important issue, “it’s not the issue that prevents all other communication and collaboration.”
Martens argued instead that compounding global crises only increase the need for dialogue between a president and a pontiff.
“Not meeting is not an option,” he said.
Ken Hackett, who served as ambassador to the Vatican under former President Barack Obama, said the question of abortion will be “totally irrelevant” at the two leaders’ meeting. Hackett recalled Biden and Francis’ brief meeting at the Vatican in 2016, when the pope offered then-Vice President Biden prayers and conciliatory words about the loss of of his son Beau. On that occasion, Biden received Communion at the Vatican.
Hackett cited rare instances when popes and presidents used their meetings to pursue specific goals, as when Obama solicited the Holy See’s help in normalizing the United States’ relations with Cuba.
“This will be a conversation about things such as immigration, maybe even getting granular on Haitians,” Hackett said. He ticked off a list of potential topics: China, Taiwan, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territories.
But generally speaking, “there’s no agreement about outcomes,” he said. “It’s not a transactional thing.”
Hackett noted Biden’s tendency to “muse philosophical,” especially about the rise of authoritarianism, which has touched the pontiff’s native South America in the form of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. “That’s the kind of thing the pope would probably like to get into: What are Biden’s thoughts on the rise of authoritarianism in the world?” the former diplomat said.
Callista L. Gingrich, who served as ambassador to the Holy See under former President Donald Trump, said that despite the Vatican’s minimal geographic footprint, presenting a united front with an American president can have a powerful effect. “The United States and the Holy See share one of the most consequential diplomatic relationships,” she said in a statement to Religion News Service, pointing to the relationship between Reagan and John Paul.
Ironically, the pontiff may spend most of his time with the president exhorting him on liberal causes on which the two men fundamentally agree.
On climate change, Francis will “urge the United States to continue to step up, both in terms of meeting the financial commitments but also focusing on helping the most vulnerable to adapt,” said Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for Mission, Mobilization and Advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, the American church’s international humanitarian aid agency.
On the global pandemic, O’Keefe said, Francis can “put the pressure” on the United States to really commit to doing what needs to be done to achieve a 70% global vaccination rate, including the waiver of vaccine patents.
“On the social-economic issues there is huge synergy and I think there is an opportunity, particularly since the pope does seem to be someone who’s looking to move the ball forward with people who he encounters, and seems skilled at engaging in disagreement while still moving forward on areas of agreement,” O’Keefe said.
And the Biden administration appears willing to be moved by faith-based, and particularly by Catholic, lobbying: In May, after an aggressive push from various organizations — including liberal-leaning Catholic groups — Biden expressed openness to suspending certain intellectual property rights to promote the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
These commentators and others warned that, whatever the two discuss, the public will only be told that it occurred in a “cordial” atmosphere: The reality of the conversation may take years to leak in biographies and memoirs.
When it does, we will already likely know whether Biden and Francis found a way to work together to solve global problems. “At a time of global crisis, can two powerful institutions find a way to work together to make things better? That’s the question for the meeting — not, ‘What does it mean for Baltimore?’,” Carr said.
Claire Giangravé reported from Rome. Jack Jenkins reported from Washington.