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What to expect from Biden’s meeting with Pope Francis

President Joe Biden and Pope Francis will meet at the Vatican on Friday

In this April 29, 2016, file photo Pope Francis shakes hands with Vice President Joe Biden at the Vatican.
In this April 29, 2016, file photo Pope Francis shakes hands with Vice President Joe Biden as he takes part in a congress on the progress of regenerative medicine and its cultural impact, being held in the Pope Paul VI hall at the Vatican.
Andrew Medichini, Associated Press

Pope Francis and President Joe Biden have both faced intense pushback from the political and religious right. But when the two men meet Friday, they won’t waste time comparing their wounds.

Instead, the global leaders will focus on shared goals, including combating climate change and ending the COVID-19 pandemic, according to experts on U.S.-Vatican relations. Personal concerns will take a backseat to politics.

“When presidents meet popes, they talk about world events, not their personal faith,” wrote the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest, for Religion News Service.

However, the meeting will still be spiritually significant for Biden, who attends Mass most weekends and is known to carry rosary beads in his pocket. The president has previously praised Pope Francis’ vision for the Catholic Church.

“I am so excited about this pope,” Biden told America magazine in 2015.

Other high-profile American Catholics are much less supportive. In recent years, conservative bishops have ignored the pope’s calls to depoliticize the church and criticized his approach to issues like abortion and gay rights.

“Political lines are much more defined, and divisive, than they ever have been,” said the Rev. Steven J. Petroff, who leads St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Rome, to The New York Times. “And that has spilled over into the church, at least the church in the United States.”

Like Pope Francis, Biden has a tense relationship with some American church leaders, in large part due to his political support for abortion rights. Conservative bishops have pushed for the church to restrict Biden’s access to communion; the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will continue debating the matter at their meeting next month.

The pope and other Vatican officials have been kinder to Biden.

“When several American bishops released a statement on the day Biden was inaugurated and slammed his support for abortion rights, the Vatican countered with a warmer, welcoming statement. As the push to bar Biden from communion got more attention in recent months ... Francis made a point in a press conference to say he’s never denied communion to anyone,” NPR reported.

But that’s not to say the pope and president are in total agreement. Pope Francis has been critical of ongoing humanitarian issues at the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as rich countries’ failure to help poorer countries distribute the COVID-19 vaccines.

“Francis is likely to press the president to ramp up coronavirus vaccine distribution to the developing world, and he rarely misses the chance to speak out against arms dealing and the consequences of war,” The New York Times reported.

Overall, though, the tone of Friday’s meeting will almost certainly be cordial, the Rev. Reese said. The White House and the Vatican both have a lot to gain from being on good terms with one another.

“After centuries of diplomatic encounters, the Vatican understands the importance of focusing on areas where it can work with governments to improve the common good,” he wrote for Religion News Service. The Biden administration, on the other hand, “sees in the pope an ally on the world stage.”

In the past, U.S. and Vatican officials have worked together to resolve a variety of global conflicts, from the Cuban missile crisis to the Soviet Union’s interference in Poland, as the Deseret News reported in 2017.

Friday’s gathering at the Vatican will be Biden’s fourth in-person meeting with Pope Francis, according to the White House. The previous three took place when Biden was vice president.