WASHINGTON — When President Joe Biden met Friday with Pope Francis at the Vatican, he presented the pontiff with a 100-year-old handspun cloak from a church in the nation's capital with a long history and a liberal bent.
But it wasn’t the priestly attire that sent the strongest message. It was the box it came in, inscribed with a Bible verse that reads, in part, “... if any of you has a grievance against someone ... [f]orgive as the Lord forgave you.”
It could be viewed as a tacit nod to the fight in which Biden, only the second Roman Catholic to be elected president, has found himself embroiled back home over the future of the faith to which he's ascribed his whole life.
While the U.S. Catholic Church tries to find its footing after years of scandal and increasingly empty pews, a battle between the conservative and progressive wings that mirrors partisan rifts across the nation has spilled into public view. Though most seem to agree the fight is bigger than Biden, the president is at the center of what church historians say is an inflection point because of his support for legal abortion, a view that aligns him with the Democratic Party he leads but splits him from his church.
American bishops have suggested Biden be denied Communion, the foundational element of the religion’s faith.
“Biden is openly embracing policy positions that directly contradict the church's most fundamental teachings,” said Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow at the conservative Catholic Association. “The church doesn't have the choice, really, of staying silent.”
In June, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops devoted its national meeting to discussing Biden and his public support of abortion rights. The Catholic Church opposes abortion and teaches that life begins at conception. The sacrament of Communion is at the core of practicing the Catholic faith, a demonstration that they believe Jesus was the son of God and that the wine and bread are transformed into his actual body and blood.
The bishops decided to draft a document advising priests on what to do when pro-abortion rights politicians turn up in their churches. The bishops will reconvene in November to revisit the issue and are likely to make formal recommendations.
The draft document being circulated won't name Biden, a source who has advised some of the bishops working on the document said. The source asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the deliberations being had by bishops.
The document won’t instruct priests to deny anyone Communion, but it will seek to use Biden — or politicians like him — as an example of how not to practice Catholicism, the source said.
Biden, who attends Mass every weekend and made his faith a central part of his personal story, has stayed silent in the fight. He hasn’t commented publicly about the bishops' meeting or responded when other prominent leaders of the church have publicly criticized him, including from the pulpit.
Asked Friday if Pope Francis, who has also been the target of U.S. bishops who view him as insufficiently conservative and even illegitimate, told him to continue receiving Communion, Biden responded simply: “Yes.”
“If Joe Biden is excluded from Communion, this would be one further step in the escalation of the hyperpartisanship that is incredibly visible in the Catholic Church in this country right now,” said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University theology professor. “So they are saying this not to help Biden, but to help Catholicism not fall into the trap of sectarianism.”
The election of Biden to the White House would have seemed, to an outsider, to be a crowning achievement of American Catholics' integration into the fabric of the nation. But not to the church’s conservatives.
“He is a very confusing figure to American Catholics because he very much campaigned on his faith and Catholicism and at the same time is sort of openly flouting church teaching,” McGuire said of Biden.
When John F. Kennedy was elected as the first Catholic president, Catholicism was seen as a foreign religion, with an American head of state at risk of being controlled by a foreign pope. The year Kennedy took office, Biden graduated from a Catholic high school in Wilmington, Delaware, a city with large populations of Irish, Italian and Polish Catholics who were probably delighted to see one of their own in the Oval Office.
By 2020, Biden’s faith wasn’t considered foreign and was essentially an election nonissue. And he is hardly alone in Washington: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is also Catholic, as is nearly one-third of Congress and two-thirds of the Supreme Court, including conservative Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, who spoke openly about her faith during her confirmation hearings.
“Joe Biden's life has essentially spanned this period of the history of the church in America, going from when the church was what might be termed very united, very faithful, seminaries were bursting with new priests, the Catholic churches were full, to the point today where you have church consolidations, church closures, you know, seminaries being emptied, all these sorts of problems.” Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org, said.
That Biden should now be used to show Catholics how not to practice Catholicism was a refrain for those who advocate that he be excluded from Communion, according to several people who spoke about the internal debate on the condition of anonymity to offer insights into their discussions.
For the orthodox or conservative wing of the Catholic Church, the debate over Biden and abortion is about the very future of the faith, which they see becoming something different in Europe as once Catholic-heavy nations become more secular and church attendance dwindles there, too. They worry the church is being stripped of its core principles and replaced with liberal ideologies and sectarianism.
The church sex abuse scandal — and the failure of the Catholic Church leadership to remove priests who were known abusers of children — has often been blamed for the shrinking number of parishioners.
Some church historians argue that as the numbers in pews have dwindled, the influence of the more strict attendees who have remained, including those who would see Biden denied Communion, has grown.
“It's a serious crisis,” Faggioli said. “It's a crisis not just of credibility, because of the sex abuse crisis, but it's a crisis of Catholicity."
Both Faggioli and Steven Millies, a professor at Catholic Theological Union, one of the largest English-speaking Catholic theology schools, argue that there has already been an irreconcilable break between U.S. Catholic leadership and the head of the church in Rome. The American church leaders have become increasingly comfortable criticizing the pope as too liberal, too focused on issues like climate change and too willing to allow Catholics like Biden to go unchecked.
In the short term, Millies saw a sign in the gift that Francis gave Biden about the effort to prevent the divisions within the church from widening. Among the gifts given to the president was a copy of the Fratelli Tutti, the writing of the pope about human fraternity that Biden often quoted on the campaign trail.
"It's an extremely important document. It really has fundamentally reframed Catholic social teaching, and we'll be talking about it for decades," Millies said. "It is how he [Francis] thinks about politics and the social community. Francis consistently has called for 'a better kind of politics' since he was elected, and Fratelli Tutti in part makes that case."