Declaring it’s “good to be back,” President Joe Biden on Friday opened a five-day European trip at the Vatican, where he and Pope Francis — the world’s two most prominent Roman Catholics — planned to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and poverty.
A dozen Swiss Guards in their blue and gold striped uniforms and red-plumed halberds stood at attention in the San Damaso courtyard for the arrival of Biden and his wife, Jill. They were received by Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza, who runs the papal household, and then greeted one by one the papal ushers, or papal gentlemen, who lined up in the courtyard.
“It’s good to be back,” Biden said as he shook the hand of one of them. “I’m Jill’s husband,” he said to another before he was ushered into the frescoed Apostolic Palace and taken upstairs to the pope’s private library.
The president takes pride in his Catholic faith, using it as moral guidepost to shape many of his social and economic policies. Biden wears a rosary and frequently attends Mass, yet his support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage has put him at odds with many U.S. bishops, some of whom have suggested he should be denied Communion.
Biden arrived at the Vatican from the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Rome in an unusually long motorcade of more than 80 vehicles, owing in part to Italian COVID-19 restrictions on the number of people sharing a car.
No live pictures or video of the meeting was expected, due to last-minute Vatican restrictions on press access.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, in previewing the visit, said she expected a “warm and constructive dialogue” between the two leaders.
“There’s a great deal of agreement and overlap with the president and Pope Francis on a range of issues: poverty, combating the climate crisis, ending the COVID-19 pandemic,” Psaki said. “These are all hugely important, impactful issues that will be the centerpiece of what their discussion is when they meet.”
U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the president and pontiff would meet privately before talks with expanded delegations. Biden is visiting Rome and then Glasgow, Scotland, for back-to-back summits, first a gathering for leaders of Group of 20 leading and developing nations and then a global climate conference.
As only the second Catholic president after John F. Kennedy, Biden has made his audience with the pope a clear priority. It was his first scheduled meeting of the trip. Biden and Francis have previously met three times but Friday’s encounter was their first since Biden became president.
Following the papal meeting, Biden will meet separately Friday with Group of 20 summit hosts Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. He will end the day by meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, part of an effort to mend relations with France after the U.S. and U.K. decided to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, scotching an existing French contract.
Biden’s meeting with Pope Francis generated some controversy in advance as the Vatican on Thursday abruptly canceled plans to broadcast the meeting with Biden live and denied press access. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the revised television plan reflected the virus protocol for all heads of state audiences, though he didn’t say why more robust live TV coverage had been initially scheduled and then canceled.
There will be no live broadcast or independent photographs of Biden greeting Francis in the palace Throne Room, nor live footage of the leaders beginning their conversation in Francis’ library.
The Vatican said it would provide edited footage of the encounter to accredited media.
A live broadcast was particularly important because the Vatican has barred independent photographers and journalists from papal audiences with leaders since early 2020 due to the coronavirus, even though external news media are allowed into other papal events.
That decision comes as U.S. bishops are scheduled to meet in roughly three weeks in Baltimore for their annual fall convention. Among the agenda items for that convention is an effort by conservatives to disqualify Biden from receiving Communion. Any document emerging from the event is unlikely to single out the president by name, but he still could face some form of rebuke.
Francis has stressed that he will not reject political leaders who support abortion rights, though Catholic policy allows individual bishops to choose whether to prevent people from taking Communion.
On the eve of Biden’s visit, a leading U.S. conservative cardinal and Francis critic, Cardinal Raymond Burke, penned an impassioned plea for U.S. bishops to deny Catholic politicians Communion if they support abortion rights legislation.
Burke didn’t cite Biden by name, but said such Catholic politicians were causing grave scandal to the faithful since church law says someone who is “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” should not be admitted to Communion.
Catholic politicians who support abortion rights “have, in fact, contributed in a significant way to the consolidation of a culture of death in the United States, in which procured abortion is simply a fact of daily life,” Burke wrote.
Biden has long cast his faith as a cornerstone of his identity, writing in his 2007 memoir “Promises to Keep” that Catholicism gave him a sense “of self, of family, of community, of the wider world.” He admits to becoming angry with God after the death of his first wife and baby daughter in a 1972 traffic accident, but Biden said he never doubted God’s existence.
He told The Christian Science Monitor in 2007 that he believes his faith is universal enough to accept those with differing viewpoints.
“My views are totally consistent with Catholic social doctrine,” Biden said. “There are elements within the church who say that if you are at odds with any of the teachings of the church, you are at odds with the church. I think the church is bigger than that.”