November 1, 2021

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.

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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 Perón, 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.