With Joe Biden in the White House, the Vatican will be dealing with the first Catholic U.S. President since John F. Kennedy, which is presenting unique headaches for the Holy See.
Biden may be Catholic, but he is pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, and pro-transgender rights, putting him at odds with the U.S. bishops, who have set up a task force for dealing with the new president.
Questions have been raised about how a meeting between Pope Francis and Biden might play out – and whether the pontiff will take a hard line with the president on life issues.
Biden has not been shy about brandishing his faith – nor, for that matter, have pro-choice Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi and the newly-minted president pro tempore of the Senate, Patrick Leahy – and many conservative Catholics fear that he will use any meeting with Pope Francis as a photo op to counter opposition to his dissenting views on Catholic doctrine.
In many ways, this is a uniquely American problem.
No other country seems to have a bloc of Catholics worry about Vatican meetings with “dissenting” Catholic politicians, unless they are directly attacking the Church and its personnel, such as in Nicaragua or Venezuela.
There is no uproar in France when a pontiff meets with an inevitably pro-choice French president, for example.
However, conservative Catholics in America tend to get upset when they see pro-choice Catholic politicians being greeted by the pope at a general audience or being invited to attend an event at the Vatican.
Is this anger justified?
I am reminded of The Roman Question, an 1859 book by French author Edmond About looking at the Papal States during the era of Italian unification.
The Papal States ran through central Italy, and the pope’s temporal authority was enforced by the armies of France and Austria.
About was a revolutionary, and no fan of papal government. He wrote his book to convince the Catholic parties in France that propping up the pontifical regime was doing no favors to the Church, so there is an implicit bias in his writings.
That said, anyone reading his book over 150 years later will note the striking similarities between the world of Blessed Pius IX that About described in the 19th century and the Vatican City State in the 21st.
“Do not imagine, however, that paying respect to Cardinals involves paying respect to religion, or that it is necessary to attend Mass in order to get invited to balls,” About writes.
“What is absolutely indispensable is, to believe that everything at Rome is good, to regard the Papacy as an arch, the Cardinals as so many saints, abuses as principles, and to applaud the march of the Government, even though it stand still. It is considered good taste to praise the virtues of the lower orders, their simple faith, and their indifference as to political affairs, and to despise that middle-class which is destined to bring about the next revolution,” he adds.
The dance continues, more than a century and a half after About wrote those words. As long as you praise the pope, commend the Vatican, and show discretion over your own disagreements with Church teaching, the invitations to Rome will arrive in your mailbox.
Think of Jeffrey Sachs, a frequent guest at Vatican events despite being a prominent global population control advocate, when attending an event in 2015 about ending human trafficking. “I think it is hard to imagine a venue more special and more appropriate than this one, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which is fully the marriage of faith and reason for the common good,” he said. Later in the same speech, he spoke of the “utter insight and power” of the words of Pope Francis.
Of course, you don’t have to be as cynical as About to explain the phenomenon.
What exactly, do people expect the pope to do?
To refuse to meet with pro-choice and pro-same sex marriage politicians in 2021 would exclude most of the leaders of the Western world. To use such meetings only to chastise the presidents and prime ministers of the world would mean they would never come back.
The Vatican realizes it can work with the Joe Bidens of the world on issues such as immigration, the environment, and disarmament. It works with less-than-savory Islamic and authoritarian regimes on pro-life issues and protecting the traditional family.
So don’t expect “dissenting” Catholics to not be invited to the Vatican ball – it is the only way the pope has to get them to dance.