ROME – As the dust begins to settle from the tumultuous 2020 presidential election in America, it’s possible that outside of Joe Biden’s campaign team, no group will emerge as bigger fans of the mail-in ballot than Pope Francis and his allies in the Vatican.
Not only will Biden become just the second Roman Catholic President of the United States, but he’s basically this pope’s kind of Catholic – center-left, broadly humanistic and globalist, not part of what one of Francis’s closest advisors famously described as an “ecumenism of hate” between conservative Catholics and evangelicals in America.
Though exit polls aren’t yet definitive, it’s also possible that Biden was propelled to the White House in part by small but crucial shifts in the Catholic vote in the Rust Belt battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. If so, the president-elect might carry a sense of gratitude into his administration’s relationship with the Church.
Had Donald Trump been reelected, as appeared likely late Tuesday as the in-person vote tallies rolled in, the stage would have been set for another four years of deep conflict between the world’s leading hard and soft powers. Instead, Francis now has someone in the White House who shares his dread of what the pope called “myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism” in his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti.
As the new Biden administration looks across the Atlantic, they have every reason to see Francis as a friend. Although the pontiff certainly didn’t issue a direct endorsement, he found other ways to make his preferences clear; in a recent interview, for example, he went out of his way to praise a 2019 book by an Italian Communist journalist comparing Trump to Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.
Augmenting the odds of bonhomie, the incredibly narrow nature of Biden’s victory means that he’ll need friends wherever he can find them, and in the triumvirate of center-left cardinals Francis now has created in America – Blase Cupich in Chicago, Joseph Tobin in Newark and Wilton Gregory in Washington– Biden may find that all the pope’s men are inclined to friendliness.
To be sure, all may not be sweetness and light as the new Biden administration takes shape. There will be pressure from the Democratic base, for example, to shore up abortion rights in the wake of Trump’s successful eleventh-hour appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, potentially triggering tensions over “life issues.”
Given that Biden on the campaign trail sounded like almost as much of a hawk on China as Trump, it’s possible that Francis’s controversial deal with Beijing on the appointment of bishops will continue to be divisive. It’s also worth noting that most of America’s wars have been waged under Democratic presidents, meaning that Francis as a “peace pope” may also find himself trying to press Biden to back down in some hypothetic future conflict situation.
Forty years ago, a pope and a president found themselves kindred spirits, and history changed as a result. St. John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan shared a conviction that Soviet Communism was both a political and a moral abomination, and together they helped set in motion the chain of events that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
It was a dazzling illustration of the possibilities when hard and soft powers are in a full, upright and locked position together.
John Paul and Reagan, broadly speaking, were both “conservatives.” Now another pope and another president, both broadly considered “progressives,” will share the global stage, and it’s possible they too could forge a partnership. After all, Francis is 83 and Biden 77, so both men have to be conscious that they’re entering the final act of their personal dramas.
Moreover, by all accounts Biden is personally a sincere Catholic and likely would relish the chance to be seen as standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a pope. He’s also no stranger to the Vatican, having visited Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, having led the US delegation for the inauguration of Pope Francis in 2013, and having keynoted a 2016 Vatican conference in which he made an emotional plea for a cure to cancer a year after the death of his son Beau.
What would be the “Evil Empire” this new form of the John Paul-Reagan alliance would combat?
For one thing, the world once again faces an existential threat in the coronavirus pandemic and its disruptive impact not just on the economy and the health care system, but a much wider range of issues including church/state relations. The Pope and the President could forge a partnership in managing this crisis.
More deeply, there’s a struggle for the geopolitical soul underway today, where Francis and Biden both represent one vision and the Donald Trumps of the world another.
On the one hand is a globalist, multilateral, broadly progressive humanism, as sketched in Fratelli Tutti, premised on a preferential option for the poor and relativizing national borders in favor of global solidarity. It favors dialogue over confrontation, and prizes scientific, technical and institutional expertise in facing challenges.
In the other corner is a strong populist nationalism, viewing the world less as a family and more as an arena in which political and economic power struggles require putting the country’s own interests first. It’s premised on a need to protect the nation against perceived threats both from within and outside. It’s also premised on national prosperity over global solidarity, and on deep skepticism and resentment of elites and establishments.
Over the next few years, it’s possible Biden and Francis could dedicate their joint energies to making the case for their alternative – and, should they succeed, the world could look very different when they’re done.
No matter what, the mere possibility of such a realignment invests the next four years with an usual degree of Catholic interest.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.