President Joe Biden’s upcoming audience with Pope Francis presents an opportunity for the pontiff to inspire the U.S. leader to work more diligently to advance solutions on shared concerns such as climate change, COVID-19 vaccine distribution, stifling poverty and conflict in vulnerable countries, a Catholic Relief Services executive said.
“You have the two loudest microphones in the international community” coming together, Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for mission, mobilization and advocacy at the U.S. bishops’ global development and humanitarian aid agency, said of the Oct. 29 meeting at the Vatican.
“I hope that the Holy Father will speak to him as a person and as a Catholic and that the Holy Father’s guidance will be very helpful,” O’Keefe told Catholic News Service Oct. 21.
“The Holy Father, with his profound leadership, can help move the United States, inspire the administration, to do more on those critical issues and to work together even where there are obvious differences between the church and the Biden administration. The opportunity to work together on these critical global issues is really central to progress on them,” he said.
Biden, the nation’s second Catholic president, plans to meet Pope Francis the day before he joins the two-day summit of G-20 leaders in Rome. The two previously met at the Vatican in 2016, when Biden was vice president and spoke at a conference on adult stem-cell research there.
Their first meeting was in 2015, when the pope attended the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.
First lady Jill Biden will accompany her husband at the Oct. 29 audience with the pope.
O’Keefe acknowledged that there are differences between the pope and the president, most notably on abortion. Biden supports legal abortion, while Catholic teaching opposes the taking of any human life from conception to natural death.
Differences, however, he said, should not prohibit the meeting from going forward. He cited the pope’s 2020 encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship,” as a reason for hope.
“The message of ‘Fratelli Tutti’ is one of encounter and brotherhood, and so speaking truth to power requires speaking to power,” O’Keefe explained. “What that means is having the courage to talk respectfully with people with whom you disagree with.”
O’Keefe expects the two leaders will have plenty to discuss.
The pope in writing and public comments has increasingly addressed climate change, protecting creation, rising economic inequality and the near-constant low-level conflict that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and claimed hundreds of lives in Africa and Asia.
O’Keefe said the pope’s messages have focused on the dire needs of the world’s most vulnerable people. The pope has repeatedly urged action to mitigate climate change and assist communities to adapt to such change.
“Everywhere we work, the climate is impacting the most vulnerable,” O’Keefe said. “The Holy Father is the most appropriate person to deliver that message to Biden.”
The CRS official also noted that the U.S. and the Vatican share concerns about improved access in poor countries to COVID-19 vaccines. Rich and developed nations have had widespread distribution of vaccines, while poor nations particularly in Africa, have received relatively small shipments of doses.
He said that while the U.S. has agreed to a waiver of the patent rights for the various vaccines, the process “is not moving fast enough” at the World Trade Organization. That’s where Pope Francis can step in, he said.
“It needs a major push at the WTO. I think making sure that the Biden administration, with European partners, makes that happen so that we can deliver on U.S. commitments to ensure that the most vulnerable people around the world get the vaccines they are entitled to,” O’Keefe said.
Regarding the conflicts that have disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people globally, O’Keefe said he expects the pope to encourage the U.S. to more actively support face-to-face talks that can lead to peace and reconciliation in trouble spots.
The Catholic Church, through Caritas Internationalis member agencies including CRS, has helped broker peace in some regions, particularly the Sahel, a 1.1 million square mile area south of the arid Sahara that extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east. Home to about 84 million people, the region has suffered through conflicts rooted in tribal and religious differences for years.
O’Keefe said raising awareness of the conflicts, demilitarizing politics in the region and boosting humanitarian aid can lead to peace. Again, he explained, the pope can stress those concerns to Biden, encouraging the U.S. to take a greater role in seeking solutions that prioritize the needs of vulnerable people.
In addition to “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” provides the basis for any message delivered to Biden, according to O’Keefe.
“This is the mission of the church,” he said.
“The pope can urge the president to keep working with Congress to deliver on critical commitments,” O’Keefe continued. “Adding his strong moral and pastoral perspective along with the policy will help some members of Congress to wrap their heads around this in a way where they see we’re talking about people, not ideology, and we’re talking about human need where the U.S. Congress and the American people can respond in solidarity.”