ROME – When Joe Biden became just the second Catholic President of the United States in January 2021, many conservative members of his own flock wished the Pope would take him to the woodshed, challenging his administration to bring its policies into greater alignment with church teaching and Gospel values.
In other words, conservative American Catholics wanted the pope – almost, to be honest, demanded that the pope – break with the president.
Three years later, those same American conservatives may be feeling some cognitive dissonance. They’ve certainly got a rupture between Washington and Rome, but not on any of the issues they believed should drive it.
Above all, conservatives wanted the pope to repudiate Biden over his support for abortion rights and, more broadly, for being on the wrong side of the wars of culture.
That clash hasn’t really materialized – famously, Biden told reporters that Pope Francis had called him a “good Catholic” after an October 2021 meeting in Rome, despite criticism from several leading US bishops over Biden’s abortion policies, and it’s a claim the Vatican has never disavowed.
On the other hand, POTUS and the Pope are badly, maybe even fatally, divided on three of the most pressing geopolitical and diplomatic issues of the day.
- While the Biden administration engages in superpower brinksmanship with China, shooting down alleged spy balloons and banning Chinese technology, Pope Francis has cut a deal with Beijing over the appointment of Catholic bishops and muted any criticism over matters of human rights and religious freedom.
- While Biden has embraced a “no retreat, no surrender” stance on the war in Ukraine, leading a massive flow of arms into the country – so much so that the Pentagon recently announced a $3 billion “rounding error” in the value of those weapons – Francis has suggested Russia has legitimate security concerns, condemned the arms trade and called for a negotiated settlement. Substantively, Francis has more in common on Ukraine with the “peace club” of non-aligned nations recently proposed by Celso Amorim, special advisor to Brazilian President Lula da Silva, than he does with Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
- While the Biden administration continues to shun President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, insisting on maintaining an economic embargo and supporting regime change, Pope Francis recently received Assad’s new envoy to the Vatican and continues to oppose sanctions and to support the reintegration of Syria into the regional and international community. For the Vatican, and certainly for Syria’s Catholic bishops, Assad is seen as the lesser of two evils given the realistic prospect of an ISIS-style Islamic theocracy taking power in Damascus should Assad fall.
Collectively, it’s arguable that US/Vatican relations haven’t experienced such a low ebb since 1995, when Pope John Paul II forged what critics referred to as an “unholy alliance” with Islamic nations to oppose the Clinton administration’s agenda for a UN conference on women in Beijing over abortion rights, or since 2003, when John Paul II was the leading moral critic of the U.S.-led war in Iraq under Bush.
(Those episodes are also, by the way, a reminder that US/Vatican disagreements are an equal opportunity employer … they don’t discriminate between Democratic and Republican administrations.)
When Biden was elected in 2020, the match with Francis seemed almost Heaven-sent. Biden is a devout Catholic who takes the Vatican seriously, and he’s a political liberal whose agenda seemed a perfect fit for the reforming spirit of the Francis papacy.
Biden’s repeatedly voiced his admiration for Pope Francis, including in commenting on the death of Pope Benedict XVI: “He had a more conservative view within the Catholic realm than I have,” Biden said of Benedict. “I’m closer to the present pope in terms of his philosophy, his view.”
Instead of a new “Era of Good Feelings,” however, the waters that divide the two sides of the US-Vatican relationship are deeply troubled.
In historical perspective, none of this ought to be surprising. When veteran Italian journalist Massimo Franco published his indispensable book on relations between the White House and the Vatican in 2005, titled Imperi Paralleli (“Parallel Empires”), the subtitle was, “two centuries of alliance … and conflict.”
Franco’s point was that when it comes to the relationship between the world’s leading “hard power” in the United States, in terms of military and political muscle, and its premier “soft power” in the Vatican, as the lone global religion with its own sovereign state and diplomatic corps, tensions are basically baked into the cake.
The great irony of the present situation is that while Catholic conservatives in America longed for a rupture between the pope and the president, the raw truth is that on the issues that actually separate the two leaders, most U.S. Catholic conservatives are closer to their political bête noire in Biden than their ecclesiastical one in the pope.
To be clear, there won’t be any rupture in U.S.-Vatican relations, as both sides have too much invested to walk away. No American president wants to risk alienating a quarter of the country’s population by appearing to diss the pope, and no pope wants to eviscerate the Vatican’s diplomatic capacity by sabotaging ties with a global superpower.
Still, the current situation is a poignant reminder for American Catholic conservatives of the ancient wisdom to be careful what you wish for, because you will surely get it.