President Biden meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican as domestic agenda hangs in the balance

Posted at 8:40 AM, Oct 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-29 10:40:39-04

Pope Francis met with President Joe Biden at the Vatican Friday, the first meeting between the heads of state since Mr. Biden entered the Oval Office.

At the meeting, the two focused on the issue of climate change, among other topics, two days before the president travels to Glasgow to attend the COP26 United Nations summit on the topic.

"The engagement between the two was very warm when the delegation arrived in the room. There was laughter and clear rapport between President Biden and Pope Francis," a White House official said.

"During the course of the cordial discussions, the Parties focused on the joint commitment to the protection and care of the planet, the healthcare situation and the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the theme of refugees and assistance to migrants. Reference was also made to the protection of human rights, including freedom of religion and conscience." the Vatican said in a statement. "The talks enabled an exchange of views on some matters regarding the current international situation, also in the context of the imminent G20 summit in Rome, and on the promotion of peace in the world through political negotiation."

The two leaders exchanged gifts. Pope Francis gave Mr. Biden works of art and papal documents, including this year's Message of Peace, while Mr. Biden gave Francis a 1930's handwoven chasuble reportedly from the church in Washington, D.C. where he regularly worships.

Earlier on Friday, Francis had released a statement calling for "radical" action on climate change.

"These crises present us with the need to take decisions, radical decisions that are not always easy," he said. "At the same time, moments of difficulty like these also present opportunities, opportunities that we must not waste."

But there were questions about how the issue of abortion would be handled at the meeting between Mr. Biden and the pontiff. As the first Catholic president since John F. Kennedy, Mr. Biden has been under pressure from conservative bishops in the U.S. over his support for abortion rights, which they argue disqualifies him from receiving communion.

Last month, Pope Francis was asked his thoughts on the controversy on a return flight to Rome from Slovakia. He said: "Abortion is murder. Abortion, without hinting: whoever performs an abortion kills," but added that he'd never deny communion to anyone in his life as a pastor, because "communion is not a prize for the perfect."

Mr. Biden, in Rome for this weekend's G20 summit, has met Francis three times previously, before he was president.

The two share a deep spiritual and personal bond: Francis comforted his family after Mr. Biden's son Beau died in 2015, and held a private meeting with Mr. Biden on cancer research. Francis' portrait is displayed prominently in the White House.

Like Francis, Mr. Biden stepped into a position of leadership later in life — the president is 78, and the pope is 84.

Mr. Biden arrived in Rome later than expected, held back in Washington as he tried to unite his party behind revamped domestic policy agenda that aims to expand the nation's social safety net and combat climate change.

Democratic leaders have spent weeks haggling with their colleagues over the size and scope of the package, which has been whittled down from a $3.5 trillion price tag to $1.75 trillion over a decade.

Mr. Biden's timely meeting with the pope, given their shared views on climate change, was welcomed by the president's administration during the political impasse.

"There is a great deal of agreement and overlap with the President and Pope Francis on a range of issues: poverty, combating the climate crisis, ending the COVID-19 pandemic," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters ahead of the meeting. "These are all hugely important, impactful issues that will be the centerpiece of what their discussion is when they meet."

That agreement could be seen on the faces of Mr. Biden and Francis after exiting their meeting. In stark contrast, the photo from Francis' 2017 meeting with then-President Donald Trump told a different story. While the Vatican is loath to weigh in directly on any nation's politics, Francis' own views were often opposed to those of the Trump administration, especially on migration, with the pontiff favoring a much more open policy.