Loose lips sink ships. The World War II slogan is a leitmotif of the Pope Francis’s relationship with the media, from his early “who am I to judge?” about homosexuals to his recent scathing words about “a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope” (presumably EWTN).
But the Pope can’t win. In the latest ruckus he is being criticised for keeping tight-lipped. It was his guest, US President Joe Biden, who went rogue and launched the verbal torpedoes.
Last Friday Biden and his wife Jill made a state visit to the Vatican, and spent 75 minutes in “cordial discussion” with the Pope.
According to a Vatican press release, the Pope and the President “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.”
There was nothing about abortion — but that was the only topic that mattered for the media and many American Catholics.
Mr Biden identifies as a Catholic and conspicuously attended Mass and received Communion in the American parish in Rome on Saturday.
Communion, which Catholics believe is the body of Christ, is the point of contention. As President, Biden has been a vocal and consistent supporter of “reproductive rights”, and “a woman’s right to choose” – in other words, abortion. Catholic regard abortion as a horrendous crime which is incompatible with receiving Communion.
A number of American bishops are outraged by the “scandalous” inconsistency shown by Catholic politicians, like Biden and Nancy Pelosi, who support abortion
Naturally, journalists zeroed in on the abortion issue after the state visit. The President responded that abortion had not been discussed. Then he added: “We just talked about the fact he was happy that I was a good Catholic, and I should keep receiving Communion.”
That’s all we know about their conversation. The Vatican followed the protocol for state visits and revealed nothing.
There was consternation amongst many Catholics over the President’s summary of the meeting. How could Francis trivialise the crime of abortion? Why didn’t he rebuke the President? How could he possibly call Joe Biden “a good Catholic”? How could he possibly encourage Biden to receive Communion?
Let’s analyse this particular bit of fake news from the White House.
(1) It would have been simpler if the Vatican had denied or at least clarified Biden’s remarks. But this was a state visit. The scrupulously observed convention is that conversations between heads of state are confidential. As John Allen, the editor of Crux, pointed out, both the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, met the Pope last week. No details of those conversations were released. Moon is a Catholic and presided over the liberalisation of abortion laws in his country. Modi presides over a country which has a disgraceful record on aborting unborn girls.
(2) Everything we know about the conversation between Biden and Francis comes from Biden. Is he a trustworthy source? As Bill Donohue, of the Catholic League, points out, Biden would say that, wouldn’t he? It’s in his interest to shore up his sagging popularity with an endorsement from the Pope. You don’t have to accept Donohue’s description of Biden as “a pathological liar” to suspect that wishful thinking might explain the positive spin he put on the meeting with the Pope.
(3) As a self-identified “gaffe machine”, the President is prone to mangling and misspeaking. Just a few days ago, he misrepresented America’s commitment to defend Taiwan in a CNN townhall event – a gaffe that could even provoke a war with China. A hostile Wall Street Journal columnist, Gerard Baker, recently described Biden as “incredible”, ie,“what makes him an incredible President is that you can’t believe a word he says.”
(4) In particular, the President’s assertion that the Pope had badged him as “a good Catholic” is incredible. In Biden’s mind “a good Catholic” probably means a good-enough Catholic, someone who gets along to church most Sundays. Pope Francis has declared war on this lukewarm approach to the Catholic faith. He would never describe someone as “a good Catholic”, not, at least, without scare quotes.
Should the Pope have berated the President and threatened him with hellfire and damnation? Probably not. It’s impossible to imagine that a tongue-lashing would have stopped Biden from supporting “reproductive rights”. Biden knows the Catholic Church’s position on abortion and has ignored it for years. Beneath his genial exterior, he has shown himself to be an intransigent ideologue in his support for “reproductive rights”. From a Catholic point of view, then, he needs to be converted. But the Pope is passing the ball to Biden’s local bishop, Wilton Gregory. It’s a big responsibility.