ROME – Back in the pre-Covid days of yore, when there still was such a thing as a lecture circuit, one of the more popular talks I gave was titled, “Rome is from Mars, America from Venus: Navigating the Cultural Gap between the Vatican and Main Street USA.” Basically, it explored the different clusters of instincts, perspectives and assumptions in these two cultural worlds, which often lead one to misunderstand the other.
The topic comes to mind again this week, watching reactions to the Biden administration play out on both sides of the Atlantic. In the States, you’d think we’re getting set for an MMA octagon title bout; in Rome, you might think Biden and his Vatican buddies are BFFs.
In US Catholic circles, a debate is reemerging which has lain largely dormant since the last time the Democrats nominated a pro-life Catholic for president, which is the question of whether someone who identifies as Catholic yet breaks with Church teaching on the life issues, especially abortion, should be denied communion.
Last week, that debate was thrust back into the spotlight after Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco issued a pastoral letter calling on such political figures not to present themselves for the Eucharist at Mass, insisting that they’re breaking communion with the Church through the policies they advocate.
The fact that the message came from Cordileone means that that it carries relevance not just for Biden but also House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, another pro-choice Catholic Democrat, since her residence is in the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
The US bishops’ Committee on Doctrine is said to be working on a broad document about fitness for communion, though it’s unclear whether a draft of that text will be ready for the bishops’ spring assembly in mid-June.
This ferment is consistent with the tone the bishops have set from Inauguration Day, when Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles warned that the incoming Biden administration would advance “grave moral evils,” and that this presents a special conundrum for the bishops because the president is himself Catholic.
Meanwhile, this is not the conversation about Biden that’s prevailed here in Rome over the past week, where the top note instead has been praise for the president’s decision to waive intellectual property rights for Covid vaccines in order to speed up distribution to poorer nations.
That decision may be dividing much of Europe, with European Council President Charles Michel expressing skepticism Saturday that it’s a “magic bullet” and French President Emmanuel Macron saying that if the US really wants to help, it could end bans on vaccine exports and share technology to ramp up production.
Yet in the small piece of Europe represented by the Vatican City State, the reaction has been much more enthusiastic.
In a May 6 piece, L’Osservatore Romano said Biden’s decision marks a “before” and an “after” in the press for global justice.
“The ‘before’ was expressed in the request of India and South Africa, made as long ago as last October, to suspend the property rights to allow mass production of generic vaccines,” L’Osservatore wrote. “That request was sifted and resifted, with producer countries of name-brand vaccines against it and a group of seventy nations supporting it. It’s a ‘before’ in which Pfizer just posted earnings in excess of already high expectations.”
“The ‘after’ will be written beginning with the choice of the United States, which carries weight even though it may not have immediate repercussions,” according to L’Osservatore.
Yesterday, Pope Francis dispatched a video message to a Covid relief concert hosted by Selena Gomez and organized by Prince Harry And Meghan Markle. He lamented the “virus” of individualism that Francis said leads to indifference to the suffering of others.
The pontiff used language widely taken as an endorsement of the Biden policy shift.
“A variant of this virus is closed nationalism, which prevents, for example, an internationalism of vaccines,” he said. “Another variant is when we place the laws of the market or intellectual property over the laws of love and the health of humanity.”
All this is emblematic of a long-standing contrast between the US and Rome, one that reaches back to the Obama years and beyond. In the States, Catholic reaction to a political leader is heavily conditioned by the abortion issue; in the Vatican, many other considerations come into play, especially concerns about justice for the world’s poorest peoples and nations typically left behind.
That cultural gap tends to give rise to prejudices on both sides of the relationship. Vatican types sometimes assume American Catholics are fixated on abortion for political reasons, to promote the broader agenda of the cultural right. (That was the spirit, for example, of the infamous “ecumenism of hate” piece about the American church penned by two close allies of Pope Francis in Civiltà Cattolica in 2017.) American Catholics, meanwhile, sometimes conclude the Vatican is simply flabby and weak on abortion, unwilling to take a firm stand.
What Vatican personnel sometimes struggle to appreciate is that unlike Western Europe, the battle over abortion is still a going concern in the States, so the Church still has a chance to move the needle. American Catholics, meanwhile, often don’t appreciate that the mere fact something is a raging priority for them doesn’t necessarily mean it is for the rest of the world, and the Vatican has a global responsibility.
In any event, fact of the matter seems clear: While America’s second Roman Catholic president may have an ambivalent relationship with the leadership of his church at home, here at the global HQ so far he’s getting a friendlier reception. If nothing else, that dynamic ought to make the announcement of Biden’s pick as his Vatican ambassador, which should come soon, an interesting one indeed.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.