Biden the Sinner

The president’s meeting with Pope Francis will come at a delicate time for both leaders.

President Joe Biden faces criticism from conservative Catholic bishops over his stance on abortion rights.
Andrew Harnik / AP

Father William Kelley delivered a blunt message to his parishioners in his homily earlier this month at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C.: “You may think that we are already a pro-life Church, but, my friends, we are not. In a very real sense. We are only an anti-abortion Church … Our Church also falls short in its self-identification as pro-life because of our disproportionate concerns for life in the womb and our relatively scant concern for the quality of life after birth.”

Sitting in the dark-brown pews that Saturday evening—where the first Roman Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, had once prayed—Joe Biden listened attentively. Father Kelley’s address made an impression on the president. A couple of days later, another Holy Trinity pastor, Kevin Gillespie, was on the golf course waiting for the group up ahead to finish a hole when he checked his phone for messages. He had a missed call from the Biden administration. The president was requesting a copy of the pointed homily. “It ruined my next shot, I was so excited,” Gillespie told me.

For an hour or so each weekend, Biden is just another congregant, a sinner who has imbibed Catholic social teachings over eight decades. But the rest of the week, he’s the nation’s chief executive with unparalleled opportunity to put those same principles into practice across the United States and, to an extent, around the world. He lives a dual identity—proud Catholic, proud Democrat—that’s given rise to an exquisite tension in both camps.

Catholic nuns schooled Biden as a boy, and faith comforted him as an adult. Church for him is home. Now prominent voices in that extended Catholic family are telling him that he is, in important respects, unwelcome. Some conservative bishops don’t believe he should be allowed to receive the sacrament of Communion so long as he supports abortion rights. They’ve said his stance makes him unworthy of a ritual that was part of his life long before his political ascent.

“Sadly, I think President Biden has been a great disappointment on very important moral issues for the Catholic Church,” Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, told me. “It’s very, very sad to see one who identifies himself as an engaged Catholic to actually be supporting something that’s so against our Catholic moral teaching and our ethic.”

Biden is not at all happy about the backlash. He doesn’t believe the sacrament of Communion should be weaponized or made to embarrass him, a person familiar with his thinking, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss private matters, told me. Perhaps that’s why he was struck by Father Kelley’s homily and its unmistakable message: A specific position on abortion rights isn’t the sole measure of a virtuous life. (A White House spokesperson declined to comment on why Biden wanted the homily.) “He is the most visible Catholic in the United States, and that puts him in a unique and challenging situation,” John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a liberal advocacy group, told me. “He’s a regular Mass-goer and he speaks with such authenticity about his faith, and for some conservative bishops that is more ammunition to challenge him.”

What the conservative bishops think isn’t necessarily representative of their flock. Throughout his life, Biden’s instinct as both parishioner and politician has been to align himself with the rank and file. As his tribe moves, so does he. “Biden is a combination of Catholic social teaching and Democratic orthodoxy,” John Carr, who spent more than 20 years working for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told me. “He is a weather vane, in some ways, a reflection of the last 50 years of Catholicism.”

Read: Is Biden doing enough to protect democracy?

Catholics made up about one-fifth of the U.S. adult population in 2020, or approximately 54 million people. When it comes to social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion rights, they’ve moved in the direction of greater tolerance, as has Biden. The majority of them believe that the president should be allowed to receive Communion despite his stance on abortion. (Individual bishops have discretion in whether to withhold Communion from certain parishioners.)

For that matter, 56 percent of American Catholics are comfortable with abortion being legal in all or most cases. Nothing suggests that conservative clerics dictate how the laity votes or that Biden need fear what they say. Biden won 52 percent of the Catholic vote last year, a share that largely reflects the overall popular tally.

“A lot of Catholics came here as immigrants, and there was a closer bond at that time among Catholics,” Mark Kennedy Shriver, a nephew of President Kennedy, said. Now, he told me, “it’s a completely different time. There is no monolithic Catholic vote.”

JFK received more than three-quarters of the Catholic vote when he won in 1960. But the vote has grown more diffuse. Amid a worldwide sexual-abuse scandal within the priesthood, some parishioners have abandoned the Church. A Pew Research Center study from 2014 found that for every American who’s converted to Catholicism over their lifetime, 6.5 have left the Church.

Some conservative clerics suggest that Biden has forsaken Catholic teachings out of expediency. For decades, he supported the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortions in most cases. But, after facing pressure from Democratic interest groups and fellow presidential candidates in 2019, he abruptly reversed direction and said he no longer backed the measure. As the Democratic Party platform “moves farther to the left, [Biden] evolves with that,” Salvatore Cordileone, San Francisco’s archbishop, told me. “Abortion is the most prominent [issue] and we can see how he’s moved more and more in the pro-abortion direction.” Senator Joe Manchin, the moderate West Virginia Democrat with huge sway over Biden’s agenda, has said that the trillion-dollar social-spending bill moving through Congress is “dead on arrival unless it includes the Hyde Amendment.” Biden said he’d sign the bill even if it contains the measure.

So far, Biden has been muted in his response to the conservative leaders of his Church, describing his religious practices as a “private matter.” Today, he will meet face-to-face with the worldwide leader of the Church, Pope Francis, his first stop in a series of European summits stretching into next week. Biden’s visit to the Vatican is a diplomatic courtesy that the pope commonly extends to heads of state. They’ll discuss immigration, climate change, and poverty, among other issues. And, perhaps, when they’re alone and the cameras are gone, they might even hash out the “private matter” that has caused such strife in recent months. Biden has done that sort of thing before. As vice president, he once met with Pope Benedict at a time when the Vatican was trying to rein in America’s politically active nuns. Biden volunteered an opinion: “Lighten up.”

Read: Joe Biden’s tell on abortion.

Expressions of religious faith are a performative act for many politicians, a way of appealing to a prized constituency. On June 1, 2020, former President Donald Trump staged a photo-op holding a Bible (upside down) outside St. John’s Church, in D.C., moments after security forces used chemical irritants to disperse protesters. For Biden, his public expressions of faith are also personal. He still carries the rosary beads that belonged to his eldest son, Beau, who died of cancer in 2015.

Last Saturday, I watched from outside as Biden attended afternoon Mass at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church, near his home in Wilmington, Delaware. Beau is buried in the cemetery that surrounds the church, along with Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and their daughter, Naomi, both of whom were killed in a car crash in 1972. The president entered the sanctuary with little fuss, clutching an umbrella in the teeming rain. “When he is in church, in a mystical way, he’s connecting with his lost loved ones,” Gillespie said. After passing a portrait of Pope Francis hanging near the entryway, Biden sat in a pew toward the rear. He got in line for Communion and left when services ended, congregants told me. Journalists took pictures from behind the dark metal gates as Biden quickly climbed into his waiting SUV. I spoke with a few parishioners as they walked to their cars. For many, his attendance has become routine. There’s no great surprise in seeing the president of the United States with his head bowed in prayer; it’s just Biden.

Gene Toy, 89, has been a member of that church for decades, and has known Biden as he progressed from senator to vice president to president. Both the Delaware and D.C. churches that Biden frequents grant him Communion, a decision that Toy favors. “We shouldn’t be telling other people what they should feel,” Toy told me. “I’m personally against abortion, but I’m not going to tell people that they [have to] be.” Others aren’t so understanding. Rock Peters, who was also in church that day, said that Biden’s presence makes him uneasy, as if he were seeing a “sacrilege.” He brought up the Hyde Amendment. “If you want to have an abortion, that’s your decision,” he told me. “But don’t make me pay for it.”

The U.S. bishops conference voted in June to develop a statement on the meaning of Communion, amid complaints from some members that a president who backs reproductive rights shouldn’t be receiving the sacrament. I asked Archbishop Cordileone what he would do if Biden were a member of his diocese. “When Catholics aggressively support policies that deny fundamental human rights and position themselves as devout Catholics, it does cause scandal; it does cause doubt,” he said. “People wonder, Does the Church really believe this? So it’s a problem. But I would try to have conversations with him to help him understand that.” And if Biden stood firm and didn’t relent? Cordileone cited a 2004 memo from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict) stating that ministers should deny Communion when counseling doesn’t work. “That’s sound advice,” Cordileone said. “The question is: When does that moment come?”

Every president endures personal attacks; it’s part of the bargain. Even the Catholic left is angry with Biden for retaining Trump-era policies making it tougher for migrants to gain asylum. “He gets a lot of comfort out of the spiritual life of the Church—and a lot of grief from people, as you well know,” Sister Carol Keehan, a former president of the Catholic Health Association who has known and worked with Biden for years, told me.

With today’s meeting, Biden may be hoping for a bit of papal absolution. He and Pope Francis share commonalities: They’ve both pushed to advance a relatively progressive agenda in the face of conservative and traditionalist resistance. Both, in a sense, are also struggling to keep intact a divided American flock. Biden has seen his poll numbers drop, while the pope is presiding at a time of growing agnosticism in the U.S. The last time a Roman Catholic president met a pope was 1963, when JFK visited Pope Paul VI at the Vatican.

Biden and Francis have known each other for years. Before the pope’s historic trip to the U.S. in 2015, Biden invited a group of Catholic clergy and social-service leaders to a breakfast meeting in the vice president’s home at the U.S. Naval Observatory. They spoke for nearly two hours about what Francis might accomplish in his tenure. “Biden has a deep appreciation for Catholic activism and the pope’s potential to revive a style of Catholicism that is more oriented toward social justice than the culture wars that we’ve seen dominate the Catholic narrative in recent years,” said Gehring, a guest at that breakfast meeting. “It’s hard to fake sincerity: The president clearly draws a lot of inspiration from the pope.” When the pope departed from the airport in Philadelphia, he took Biden and his family aside in a hangar to comfort them over Beau’s death a few months earlier.

Should the Communion issue arise today, they’ll likely find agreement about the sacrament. The Vatican has already made plain that the clergy shouldn’t deny Biden the body of Christ. “What should a shepherd do?” the pope asked last month. “Be a shepherd and not [go] around condemning or not condemning.”

For Biden, an important part of the meeting will come when footage is released of the two Roman Catholics sitting side by side. An image of the pope smiling warmly will signal something that the clergy can’t ignore: This is no wayward Catholic.