ROME – We witnessed a brief kerfuffle on the Vatican beat Tuesday, when one news agency reported confidently that President Joe Biden would travel to Rome to meet Pope Francis that morning, and, when it didn’t happen, another agency reported somewhat gleefully on the blunder while also objecting to the perceived agenda behind it.
It would be nothing more than a minor blip on the radar screen, were it not for what it illustrates about such summits in general: Nothing beckons a war of spin quite like whenever a pope and a president meet.
Naturally, the frisson came just on the eve of a heated debate among the US bishops over Communion for pro-choice Catholic politicians such as Biden, thus lending it obvious political relevance as we wait for the results of the bishops’ vote to be revealed.
The truth of it is, popes meet heads of state all the time, at least under normal circumstances when a global pandemic isn’t curtailing travel. Just a few days ago, Pope Francis received President Alexander Van der Bellen of Austria, and rarely do these encounters make much news. This isn’t Biden and Putin in Geneva, meaning a tense superpower showdown over cybersecurity, the fate of Alexei Navalny, war in Ukraine and other geopolitical tipping points. More often, it’s a polite but banal exchange of generalized pleasantries culminating in a gift exchange and a photo op.
The Vatican never wants to embarrass its guests, and visiting politicians usually want nothing more than their picture with their pontiff. If you’re expecting Clash of the Titans, this just isn’t the stage.
Yet none of that seems to matter when a US President comes calling, because American media and commentators will insist on seeing such sessions as referenda on the entire relationship between a given administration and the Pope, the Vatican, the US bishops, the Catholic Church, and for matter, the Gospel.
Suddenly, journalists and bloggers become TV crime show experts in micro-expressions, reading significance into every facial expression, every bit of body language, every adverb in an official communique. Even sartorial choices can become fodder, dicing whether the First Lady’s dress, for instance, showed sufficient deference or unbecoming nonchalance.
Generally, the dynamic is this: Under a Republican president, liberal American Catholics want to undercut Republican claims to represent the “religious” vote by emphasizing areas of clash with the pope and the Vatican, usually over poverty, the environment, the death penalty, the arms trade and war and peace.
When US President George Bush came to the Vatican in 2004 to present St. John Paul II with the Medal of Freedom, for instance, many progressive American commentators styled the meeting as “to the woodshed” moment in which John Paul would berate Bush for his decision to go to war in Iraq the year before.
Conversely, when a Democrat is in the White House, conservative Catholics want to spin every papal or Vatican encounter as a potential knuckle-wrapping exercise over life issues, above all abortion. Should that Democrat be a Catholic, the stakes are even higher because there’s also the question of the president’s personal ecclesiastical standing.
When Pope Benedict XVI chose to give US President Barack Obama a copy of a 2008 text from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on bioethics, Dignitatis Humanae, during their 2009 Vatican encounter, it was styled in much conservative American commentary as a dramatic papal rebuke.
In other words, the Catholic wings of both ideological factions in America seek to exploit every time a president meets a pope to score political points. No doubt the same will be true when Biden eventually does meet Pope Francis, which now seems likely to take place in late October when Biden is in Rome for a G20 meeting.
Not that it likely will make any difference, but let me try to offer some context to lower heart rates whenever this does happen.
Neither Vatican personnel nor White House and US diplomatic officials are naïfs, so they’re well aware that anything said or done during a meeting with a US president will be subject to endless examination. There are no accidents, so it’s fair to ask why a pope chose to do X, or why a president said y.
Yet both sides also have a powerful incentive for avoiding ugliness, and, almost always, if there’s a less confrontational explanation available for a given twist, it’ll turn out to be right.
(Case in point: The agency that reported Biden and Francis would be meeting Tuesday added the tidbit that the Vatican had refused a request from Biden to attend the pontiff’s morning Mass because it came on the eve of the US bishops’ Communion debate. Even had that been true, there’s a non-dramatic reading based on diplomatic protocol. Heads of state don’t generally attend the private morning Mass, so if you did it for one, you’d have to do it for all of them.)
On the Vatican side, Rome prizes its sovereign status and diplomatic standing above virtually anything else, and its recurring nightmare is that one day the nations of the world will wake up and wonder why they’re bothering to invest resources in diplomatic relations with such an idiosyncratic state.
As a result, the Vatican never wants to do anything that might prompt such a reexamination, especially with the superpowers. Its calculus is that the channels of communication diplomatic relations create form a unique asset, but those channels must be used gently and with discretion. (Witness, for the most recent example, its kid gloves approach to China.)
The idea of using a rare encounter with a superpower head of state to notch up a cheap PR victory is anathema.
Moreover, Vatican officials also know that Catholic social teaching and American politics form a classic round hole/square peg dynamic. One president is forever favorable to about half of the Church’s social agenda and hostile to the other, no matter what the party affiliation, and the Vatican long ago made its peace with that reality. It’s not going to use a meeting with the pope to poison the relationship.
(As a footnote, these meetings are often occasions for pundits to try to drive a wedge between the Vatican and the US bishops, suggesting the Vatican is either more friendly, usually with Democrats, or less obeisant, usually with Republicans, than the bishops. While there’s sometimes truth to those perceptions, there’s also an institutional factor: The US bishops are responsible for domestic church/state relations, the Vatican for foreign policy and state-to-state matters, so inevitably their approaches will be different.)
On the American side, every president is conscious that Catholics represent one-quarter of the American population, and while they don’t all think alike, there’s little percentage to be gained in being seen as rude to a pope. Biden, of course, has a special incentive to be on the pope’s good side, not merely because of his personal convictions but also the persistent criticism he draws from Catholic conservatives.
So, when Pope and President do meet, it will no doubt be a great occasion to review the state of things vis-à-vis relations between the world’s leading Hard Power and its most prominent Soft Power.
Just don’t expect fireworks – and, then, brace yourself for a bumpy spin cycle for the next few days, no matter what actually happens.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr