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Biden-Pope Francis visit couldn't come at a better time

The meeting is an important opportunity for two leaders with no shortage of pressing humanitarian issues on their plates.
Image: Pope Francis with then-Vice President Joe Biden after speaking at the Capitol on Sept. 24, 2015.
Pope Francis with then-Vice President Joe Biden after speaking at the Capitol on Sept. 24, 2015.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images file

President Joe Biden is a fan of Pope Francis, that much is clear. He has said that Francis is “the embodiment of Catholic social doctrine that I was raised with … the idea that everyone’s entitled to dignity.” He traveled to the Vatican for the papal installation in 2013, where he noted that the new pontiff “shares a vision that all of us share, to reach out to the poor and the dispossessed.” And when Francis addressed Congress in 2015, Biden gushed, “I am really excited that the whole world is getting to see what are the basic essential elements of what constitutes Catholicism.”

The goal of the meeting, according to the White House, will be to work together on the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and caring for the poor.

Now, for the first time as president, Biden will meet with Francis on Friday. The goal of the meeting, according to the White House, will be to work together on the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and caring for the poor. It is an important opportunity for two leaders with no shortage of pressing humanitarian issues on their plates, and a chance for Biden in particular to refocus on what drives his administration.

The visit also comes as far-right Catholics increasingly seek to undermine Francis’ legitimacy and convince conservative Catholic bishops in the United States to deny Biden communion. These culture warriors will likely be out in full force this week trying to score points on their crusade to criminalize abortion. But such extremists don’t actually represent the views of most U.S. Catholics — the majority of whom don’t support overturning Roe v. Wade — and the president and the pope are right to instead focus on the critical issues facing humanity.

One of those critical issues is climate change, which both have labeled an existential threat to humanity. Last month, the pope released an unprecedented joint statement with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, calling for action at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which Biden will attend following his trip to Rome.

Among other avenues, Biden is seeking to address the climate crisis through his Build Back Better agenda. After months of intense negotiations, Biden is currently working with congressional leaders on a compromise bill. This meeting is an opportunity to demonstrate to people around the world that America is still committed to addressing the climate crisis.

At a “Build Back Holy” press conference with faith leaders last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic, specifically called out the impact that Biden’s legislation would have on children: Congress should act like Jesus and “make sure that all children have the opportunity that they deserve — they’re all blessings containing their spark of divinity,” she said. (These common-good investments would be paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations, which polling shows is supported by 68 percent of U.S. Catholics.)

While some of the more robust initial provisions of Biden’s American Families Plan have been pared down during the negotiations, the Build Back Better framework—and ultimate legislation—will transform every aspect of child care in America—significantly lowering costs and expanding options for families, incentivizing quality, and raising wages for workers. With the partisan margins in Congress razor thin, Biden needs all the help he can get – and Pope Francis is a strong ally.

There are few global figures who command more moral authority. Francis has a 63 percent favorability rating among U.S. adults and 82 percent favorability rating among U.S. Catholics. Biden’s closeness with the pope could reshape how Americans understand Biden’s motivation in the current legislative moment. His agenda does not represent so-called “tax and spend liberals,” but rather reflects an urgent need to care for the most vulnerable.

Beyond the Build Back Better agenda specifically, Biden's and Francis’ views also align on a number of other areas, including racial justice. Last week, the pope compared Black Lives Matter protests to a good Samaritan. “This movement did not pass by on the other side of the road when it saw the injury to human dignity caused by an abuse of power,” he said in his address to the Fourth World Meeting of Popular Movements. Biden has made this a priority through executive action and pressed Congress to pass legislation, including the Freedom to Vote Act and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would help shape the country into a more just and equitable society. Both bills, notably, have stalled in the Senate.

Ending the coronavirus pandemic is another urgent cause for humanity. “Thanks to God’s grace and to the work of many, we now have vaccines to protect us from Covid-19,” Francis said. He also called getting vaccinated an “act of love.” Biden has similarly urged Americans to get vaccinated, required federal employees and contractors to get vaccinated, and pushed to make sure vaccines are accessible, convenient, free and effective.

Finally, there was alignment between the Vatican and Washington around ending the U.S. war in Afghanistan. While the withdrawal took a toll on the president’s approval rating, the underlying decision to end the war reflected Biden’s goals of leading with diplomacy instead of military force. And it seems clear from recent comments that Francis agrees with this approach: “In the name of God, I call on powerful countries to stop aggression, blockades and unilateral sanctions … Conflicts must be resolved in multilateral fora such as the United Nations,” he said last week.

"Grave crises facing our human family call for farsighted and united responses," the pope wrote to Biden on his inauguration. And that unity will need to be on display like never before on Friday. With so much on the line, Catholics, other Christians, and people of all the world’s religions will be watching closely.