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The reason the Pope met Joe Biden His Machiavellian antics riled up conservative critics

Rug-pulling is one of this pope's hobbies. Credit: Riccardo De Luca/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Rug-pulling is one of this pope's hobbies. Credit: Riccardo De Luca/Anadolu Agency/Getty


November 1, 2021   5 mins

Just before noon on Friday, Joe Biden met Pope Francis to discuss a crisis that allegedly keeps both of them awake at nights: a climate crisis exacerbated by the burning of fossil fuels. To underline the importance of the event, America’s second Catholic president sailed into the Vatican in a motorcade of 85 vehicles. Even Mussolini might have balked at such a shameless display of gas-guzzling.

But this was a visit in which neither the White House nor the Vatican seem to be paying the slightest attention to the optics. That was a mistake, because although the Left-wing pope and the liberal president obviously like each other, there were just so many things that could go wrong. And by Saturday night, when bizarre rumours of the encounter started circulating on Twitter, it was pretty clear that most of them had.

The world’s media weren’t interested in what these two old men had to say about the environment. Their combined age is 163. Francis makes a point of reading as few newspapers as possible; Biden’s cognitive decline means he struggles to hold them the right way up. The only thing anyone wanted to know was what the Pope, who recently described abortion as “murder”, would say to a supposedly devout Catholic president whose militantly pro-choice stance extends to support for late-term abortions.

The first sign that the Vatican was nervous about the meeting came when it cancelled the planned live broadcast of Biden meeting Francis. The media had been told they could film the two men shaking hands in the Throne Room of the Apostolic Palace, followed by a few seconds of them sitting down to talk. On Thursday, the Holy See press office suddenly pulled the plug on this — the cameramen would be thrown out as soon as Biden emerged from his limo. The hacks scratched their heads for an explanation. The most likely one was that the Vatican was worried that the doddery president would forget the Pope’s name or walk into a broom cupboard. Or both.

A photograph released afterwards showed the two men chatting happily across the table, an impressive feat since they don’t share a language. But, with the aid of an interpreter, they did spend 75 minutes in each other’s company. That’s more than twice as long as Trump was granted in 2017 — no surprise, since Francis couldn’t stand him — and also more than 20 minutes longer than the Pope’s meeting with Obama in 2014.

Did they talk about abortion, and specifically Biden’s insistence on receiving communion every week — something conservative bishops say he’s not entitled to do, since his lobbying for abortion puts him in a state of grave mortal sin? The Vatican wouldn’t comment: it never discusses these private conversations. But Biden did, in response to a shouted question from a reporter. Asked if the subject of abortion came up, he said: “No, it didn’t. It came up, we just talked about the fact that he was happy I was a good Catholic and I should keep receiving communion.”

The exact words are important, because several US media outlets — unswervingly pro-Biden and keen to protect him from embarrassment — missed out the words “It came up”, thus concealing the fact that Biden had said abortion didn’t and did come up in space of a few seconds. Liberals generally, and especially liberal Catholics, would much rather go with the narrative that Francis diplomatically avoided the subject of abortion and simply reassured the president that he was a good Catholic who could receive communion.

Conservative US Catholics, meanwhile, reacted with a mixture of anger and confusion to Biden’s comments. They were outraged at the thought that a pope could spend over an hour with a pro-abortion Catholic and not remind him of the Church’s teaching — spelled out very clearly in the past — that his activism bars him from the Eucharist. Indeed, if Biden were to be believed, Francis had just demolished that teaching by beckoning the President towards the altar rail, thus making a nonsense of his earlier denunciation of abortion as murder.

But can Biden’s account be trusted? Strict truthfulness was never his long suit, even when he had his full complement of grey cells. Presumably he was advised that, given the Vatican’s policy of not commenting on private discussions, short of a furious papal denunciation he could get away with saying anything.

Also — and this is a difficult point for loyal Catholics to grasp — Pope Francis’s own judgement, even on questions of faith and discipline, is far from infallible. Like his one-time hero, the Argentine populist dictator Juan PerĂłn, he is happy to bend or blur principles in order to wrong-foot his opponents. And there is no one he dislikes more than American Catholic conservatives. When they begged him to reprove Biden for his extreme pro-abortion stance, they were guaranteeing that he would do nothing of the sort. Francis knew that, by allowing Biden to escape censure — and to receive communion in Rome on Friday night — he would pull the rug out from under orthodox US bishops who want their conference to tighten the rules on reception of the Eucharist. Rug-pulling is one of this pope’s hobbies.

So it might seem that Biden’s visit to the Vatican worked out well for him, despite the lack of official confirmation that he can receive communion. But on Saturday the poor man found himself confronted by an avalanche of tweets and retweets gloating about reports from well-connected sources that he’d had a bit of a “bathroom accident” while visiting the Pope. Hence, allegedly, the meeting over-running so much. And even if we discount this as puerile black propaganda, the edited video of Biden presenting gifts to Francis shows the most painfully frail American president in living memory. At 79 he is the oldest man ever to hold the office, but he could easily be a decade older. His visit to the Vatican will raise questions about how many more foreign trips he’s capable of making. It’s hard to believe he will still be in office for the midterms, let alone the 2024 elections.

There’s no doubt, however, that Biden derived an almost childlike pleasure from meeting the successor of Peter. But it’s less likely that Francis was personally moved by the encounter. You can imagine him rolling his eyes at the White House’s hilariously inappropriate decision to give him an antique vestment made for the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass he’s busy trying to suppress.

What we see on the video is the switched-on charm Francis provides for any foreign leader who passes his ideological smell test. The unofficial motto of this pontificate is “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, and it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to imagine the satisfaction the Peronist pope is feeling at the sight of his conservative critics roused to a new pitch of indignation.

But what the video also shows is a man who, still recovering from major colon surgery at the age of 84, is finally showing his age. He is tired – he had to cancel his plans to attend the Glasgow climate summit – and, significantly, many members of the college of cardinals, including his own appointees, are tired of him. We can’t predict whether the next pope will be a conservative or a liberal. What we do know is the conclave will be anxious to put an end to the Machiavellian antics on display last weekend.


Damian Thompson is a journalist and author

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Sarah H
Sarah H
2 years ago

You are clearly drawing fire, Unherd. Keep it up.

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  Sarah H

I welcome provocative pieces that challenge my thinking. This one is too lazy, snide and sneering to do that. Worthy of the worst hard leftist.

Last edited 2 years ago by andrew harman
Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
2 years ago

It is naive to believe the news media would not hide it if Joe had a sudden pants load. American journalists especially are invested in keeping Joe upright.

Virginia Durksen
Virginia Durksen
2 years ago

The reason Pope Francis loathes the Latin Mass community is because they are Catholics and he isn’t, (I jest).
Supporting abortion is a bad idea but lying is a mortal sin. That’s what the whole 8th commandment (You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor) is about. It is the gateway to the other grave sins and it offends God deeply because God is truth.
The fact that Joe Biden receives communion is not an issue, he can do so provided that he is in a state of grace, a state he can enter if he confesses his sins to a priest and the priest gives him absolution. If his confessor ignores the fact that he commits the same list of sins over and over again, and does not seem interested in changing his behavior, the priest can withhold absolution but it is a decision that no one else can make, not even the Pope.
I wonder if Nancy Pelosi receives communion on a regular basis?

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

The next conclave should be interesting. Those of us who keep abreast of the machinations within the Church have picked up a panic vibe among the Jesuits and Bergoglio’s “progressive” cardinals. Their worry revolves around the fact that electing a pope requires a two thirds majority. A lot of non-Catholics don’t understand the Catholic mindset when it comes to the magisterium, but basically, everything is subordinate to it, including the pope. The fact the Francis has driven a coach and horses through it at least twice (capital punishment and communion for divorced and remarried) has horrified a lot of cardinals who were initially sympathetic towards him. Add that to the fact that a weighted majority drags elections back into the centre anyway and the fear among the “protestant” faction is that they haven’t done enough packing and rigging in the college of cardinals. They’re terrified they might end up with another Pius IX, someone who’s actually a lot more traditionally minded than he appears, but who has been presenting himself as a moderate centre-leftist.

Last edited 2 years ago by Francis MacGabhann
Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

I have nothing to say.

David Batlle
David Batlle
2 years ago

In conclusion, religion at the highest levels, just like politics, is garbage. Or should I say rather, religion at the highest levels is just politics.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Batlle
James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago

May I suggest that we keep calm and carry on, mindful of the fact that this is an OPINION piece.
That being said, I can’t think of two more vile, disgusting, and evil people being in the same room, and I welcome any and all attacks as long as not presented as news. Opinion yes, news no. Separation of church and state, something the media once did. No more.
On the one hand, we have the child molester in chief, resplendent in his ridiculous outfit, and on the other we have POTUS, a demented, doddering dotard (thanks to the DPRK for introducing this word to me).
Jimmy Carr and to a lesser extent Al Murray have said most of what needs to be said about the pope, but as a Yank, let me share some thoughts. America tends to lionize people who (seemingly) put service above self, and three examples immediately come to mind: RBG, John McCain, and Joe Biden. RBG put self over country for many years, decades even, because when she could no longer do the job she refused to resign. The resignation of any federal judge, let alone a Supreme Court justice is an inherently political act, and if RBG put country over self she would have resigned so Obama could have appointed her successor. But being a Supreme is fun, combining the best aspects of skilled nursing care, chauffeurs, sycophants, and the ability to shape the future, both through her opinions and the armies of clerks she unleashes into the very top of society and government. She stayed and died in office; self over country. A capital result, especially as Trump got to name her replacement and the Left went into full derangement syndrome.
John McCain, on the other side of the aisle, did the same. He disgustingly put self over country (at least near the end) when he, literally, couldn’t do the job, couldn’t show up for work because he was dying. Of course he had stayed too long, because….well, if you can’t be POTUS, being a Senator from a safe state is a pretty good gig. And when it was clear the end is nigh, what did McCain do re “his” seat: he tried to negotiate who his successor would be, nominating his also vile and disgusting wife Cindy. (As an aside, I’ve always hated the way the press, almost everyone really, refers to Congressional and Senate seats as “his” or “hers.” In reality, they belong to the people of the district or state and they are filled by a temporary occupant. This constant reference to “his” seat or “her” seat confuses the temporary occupant, who come to believe it really is theirs.) McCain too died in office; I celebrated.
Now to Sleepy, Senile Joe Biden. He is simply a pathetic loser and liar–and yes, Stephanie (commentator below), he really is a liar and he really does live in a cuckoo’s land…. Biden is a serial fabulist, and recently has been repeating the story that he was congratulated by an AMTRAK (government run train system, very dangerous, don’t ever take it) employee for going 1.5mm miles on AMTRAK. This couldn’t have happened. Even a fawning press showed that what he said could not possibly be true (the employee had retired by the time Biden was VP, and the story had to do with his achieving this milestone while VP). Another problem with Biden is that, at this point, not enough oxygen getting to his brain (remember, he has a deadly serious stroke as a much younger man) he may actually believe this, along with many other impossible things.
Sleepy Senile Joe Biden–obviously not physically or mentally up to the job–put self over country by running in the first place (I know you say “stand for office,” we say run), and only because of Corona was he able to hide in the basement, as he does in WH, and avoid any real exposure of his senility. The toughest question he got was “What flavor ice cream did you order?, about as much HARD TALK as Anderson Cooper helping Biden in a town hall meeting throughout the entire farce. Biden wanted to be President. He has always wanted to be President. He didn’t like the way Obama treated him, so this is a bit of payback.
Biden put self over country because he believed that this was something he deserved, and he physically embodies the decline of America.
Imprecatory prayers for both!

Peter Shaw
Peter Shaw
2 years ago

The incident has literally killed my faith in the Church. Pope Francis has changed either Church teaching on the Eucharist or abortion . There goes its infallibility on issues of faith or morals .

David Batlle
David Batlle
2 years ago

In other news about Biden’s visit to the Vatican: he pooped his pants.

Gray Rayner
Gray Rayner
2 years ago

“… significantly, many members of the college of cardinals, including his own appointees, are tired of him.”
Prove it.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
2 years ago

It is actually a dreadful piece. If you strip out the innuendoes and the speculation it has nothing to say at all.

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

Exactly Richard! But for some it is attacking Biden so it has to be good. Any criticism of it has to be bad.

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

Yes, no doubt the downvotes are coming from Trump-lovers. They are as irrational and divorced from reality as those who still cling to the belief that Obama was a good president. Runs both ways.

Ess Arr
Ess Arr
2 years ago

What a snide, snarky, mardy and unpleasant article.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ess Arr
Emre Emre
Emre Emre
2 years ago

10 commandments include “Thou shalt not murder”. So where are the hordes of angry American conservative Catholics protesting the existence of a standing American army? What’s the army for if not systematically killing people? Hypocrisy much? Yes, I thought so.

Last edited 2 years ago by Emre Emre
andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago

This is a seriously poor article. I have never been a particular fan of Biden’s but I am even less one of Trump’s This is pure polemic designed to feed BDS, every bit as much of a thing as TDS. Unherd is better than this. (And no, I do NOT only want to read articles I agree with, I just want to read ones that actually have serious points to make.)

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

yes, the article was a bit cynical, but it pointed out the Pope’s total weakness, when it comes to a fellow lefty, in overlooking one of the most important principles of the Catholic Faith, which is to protect the weak and feeble amongst us. Guess as long as you have the same political views, it doesn’t matter, if something so fundamental to Catholic faith is conveniently overlooked. Unless Biden is a lier and/or totally lives in cloud cuckoo’s land, to tell the reporters that the pope reassured him, that he is still a good Catholic, is beyond me. Maybe both should join another Faith.

Last edited 2 years ago by Stephanie Surface