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US could hold key for the future of the Catholic Church

Massimo Faggioli
Massimo Faggioli
October 28, 2021

As Catholic Joe Biden meets Pope Francis, sacraments and abortion are sure to be a bone of contention. But Church historian Massimo Faggioli says the pope needs to tread carefully — the future of Catholicism is at stake.

Joe Biden standing next to Pope Francis in 2016
Joe Biden has clashed with US Catholic bishops for being in favor of abortion rightsImage: Evandro Inetti/ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

When US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden receive an audience with Pope Francis on October 29, it will be a very different moment from the previous meeting between Paul VI and John F. Kennedy in July 1963. In the early 1960s, the problem for a Catholic candidate or president was the acceptability of Catholicism by American Protestantism and the liberal secular establishment.

Today the problem is what kind of Catholicism is acceptable to Biden's fellow Catholics: In a hyper-polarized country, partisan affiliations shape more and more religious identities, also in the Catholic Church.

This papal audience takes place just two weeks before the fall assembly of the conference of US Catholic bishops in Baltimore. On the agenda is a document on the Eucharist — or Holy Communion — that some bishops would like to use to exclude pro-choice politicians like Biden from receiving communion at Mass.

The Vatican, while maintaining the traditional Catholic teaching on abortion, has been trying, in various ways in the last few months, to protect Biden's access to the sacraments from the attack of the US bishops.

Strained relations between Vatican and US

No matter what happens with the document that the bishops will discuss in Baltimore in November, the discussion itself has already divided bishops in unprecedented ways - in an already precarious standing of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in the eyes of the Vatican.

The USCCB is already seen as a political action committee identifying primarily with Republicans and not as the leadership of the one Catholic church in the US, in communion with the bishop of Rome.

Massimo Faggioli
Massimo Faggioli has written extensively on the US Catholic ChurchImage: Privat

One important thing to remember about the majority of the US bishops who would like to sanction Biden through his exclusion from receiving Communion at Mass is that a good number of them endorsed, or failed to respond to, the extraordinarily serious allegations made by former papal nuncio to the US, and Donald Trump supporter, Carlo Maria Vigano.

In August 2018, Vigano tried to unseat Pope Francis with unproven allegations and conspiracy theories. Members of the US episcopate who are now trying to exclude Biden from the sacrament of the Eucharist are the same who looked with favor not just at the Trump presidency, but also at what was effectively an attempted coup against Pope Francis.

A good relationship between the Vatican and the Biden administration is very important for Francis. Biden's election in November 2020 was welcomed in the Vatican with a huge sigh of relief, after four very difficult years of the Trump administration with unprecedented tensions between the White House and the pope.

But now, nine months into the Biden administration, the Vatican is wondering what kind of promises the second Catholic president can keep, from climate change, immigration, and — especially after the withdrawal from Afghanistan — multilateralism in international relations. But Pope Francis needs Joe Biden, for his international agenda, but also to save US Catholicism from ideologues.

The Vatican's effort to protect Biden's access to the Eucharist is not an endorsement of the abortion policies and politics of the Democrats, but an attempt to save the US Catholic Church from sectarian instincts.

US key in future of Catholicism

In the Vatican, it is not clear whether Pope Francis represents the beginning of a new age in the relationship between the papacy and global modernity or if it is just an interlude before the return, with the election of his successor, to a more confrontational approach.

Pope Francis admitted in an interview recently that some cardinals are looking forward to replacing him. In the US, the strong opposition to Francis' papacy could influence the future balance of power in the church at the global level. What is happening in the halls of power of US Catholicism could be a prediction for the future of Catholicism as a whole.

What happens in the Vatican and in the US will have a deep impact on the future of the Catholic Church globally. A failure of the pontificate of Francis in delivering Catholicism from the grip of theological fundamentalism and political authoritarianism could be on ominous sign for those who were hoping that the Trump presidency and Trumpian Catholicism were just an aberration.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at the Catholic Villanova University in Pennsylvania, US, and author of "Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States."