Live Updates: In Private Meeting, Francis Weighs In on Biden Communion Debate

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Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

President Biden told reporters on Friday that Pope Francis had called him a “good Catholic” and said he should keep receiving communion, an unexpected development that appeared to put a papal finger on the scale in a debate raging in the United States’ Roman Catholic Church over whether the president and other Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be denied the sacrament.

Asked by reporters if Francis had told him during their private 75-minute audience whether he should keep receiving communion, Mr. Biden replied, “Yes.”

Mr. Biden said the issue of abortion had not come up during their meeting. “No, it didn’t,” he said. “It came up — we just talked about the fact he was happy that I was a good Catholic and I should keep receiving communion.”

Asked to confirm Mr. Biden’s remarks, Matteo Bruni, the Vatican spokesman, said the Holy See limited its comments to the news release about subjects discussed during the meeting and added, “It’s a private conversation.”

The Vatican — which did not allow public access to the meeting, citing coronavirus concerns — released heavily edited footage and later said in a statement that, in the private part of the meeting, Francis and Mr. Biden had focused “on the joint commitment to the protection and care of the planet, the health care situation and the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the theme of refugees and assistance to migrants.” It added that the talks had touched on human rights and freedom of religion.

Before Mr. Biden’s meeting with Francis, leaders in the effort by some American bishops to deny the president communion had intensified a pressure campaign urging the pontiff to take their side.

“Dear Pope Francis, You have boldly stated that abortion is ‘murder.’ Please challenge President Biden on this critical issue,” the arch-conservative Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., wrote on Twitter. “His persistent support of abortion is an embarrassment for the Church and a scandal to the world.”

The pope may not be inclined to entertain suggestions from Bishop Tobin, who is often viewed within the Vatican as hostile to Francis’ agenda.

Other prelates who hoped Francis might reprimand Mr. Biden have also spent years trying to undercut the pope’s authority.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, whom many allies of Francis see as the de facto leader of the opposition to the pope in the Vatican and the United States, posted a nearly 3,000-word letter on his website before the meeting. In it, he said that American bishops would soon take up “the long-term and gravely scandalous situation of Catholic politicians who” support abortion rights and receive communion.

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

With his domestic agenda in limbo and tensions with China and Russia smoldering, President Biden kicked off a whirlwind international tour on Friday in Rome, where he met with Pope Francis to discuss global challenges like the pandemic and climate change.

The meeting — the president’s first with Francis since his inauguration — had deep emotional resonance for Mr. Biden, a Roman Catholic. The president and the pope share common ground on many issues, and Mr. Biden seemed visibly excited as he headed into a private meeting, which lasted 90 minutes.

During their meeting, Mr. Biden thanked Francis for his advocacy for the world’s poor and people suffering from hunger, conflict and persecution, the White House said, adding that he had also lauded the pope’s leadership in the climate crisis and his advocacy on coronavirus vaccines.

Francis has repeatedly called on pharmaceutical companies to waive intellectual property protections for their coronavirus vaccines on the grounds that doing so would be a “gesture of humanity.” In May, Mr. Biden said he supported the suspension of some of those protections, but large manufacturers have argued that scaling up production is a more effective way to help end the pandemic.

After the Vatican visit, Mr. Biden is set to attend the Group of 20 summit, and then he and many of the same leaders will travel to Scotland for COP26, a worldwide summit on climate change that is billed by many as a make-or-break moment to save a warming planet from disaster.

For Mr. Biden, the international events come against the backdrop of high-stakes negotiations over his domestic agenda. But participants in the summits from across the globe are all facing enormous challenges, many linked to the pandemic and the health and economic devastation it has wrought.

The agenda would be daunting even in normal times, but this is the first G20 meeting in person since the virus emerged. Many of those who are coming hope to deliver concrete changes on issues like international tax shelters and getting coronavirus vaccines to the developing world, even as they struggle to make progress on existential issues like lowering carbon emissions and addressing energy shortages.

Mr. Biden will also meet on Friday with President Emanuel Macron of France, who is livid with the administration after the United States cut a secret deal to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines — leaving France, which thought it had a multibillion-dollar agreement in the bag, empty-handed.

Between those two meetings, Mr. Biden heads to the Chigi Palace, the home of Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi. It is not just a polite drop-by. With Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany leaving the scene and Mr. Macron politically embattled, Mr. Draghi has emerged as a leader of Europe and a potentially key interlocutor for an American president looking to keep alliances strong on the continent.

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

President Biden, who is usually late to meetings, pulled up to the Vatican promptly at noon on Friday. A minute after arriving with Jill Biden, the first lady, in the presidential limousine, he shook hands with Vatican officials before being taken inside to meet with Pope Francis.

The president’s enormous motorcade, with dozens of cars and S.U.V.s carrying military personnel, rolled down the broad Via della Conciliazione. It entered the Vatican courtyard, and Mr. Biden removed his black face mask and stepped out of the car.

He came out smiling and shook the hand of a bishop, Leonardo Sapienza, who would accompany him inside.

The president — accompanied by Dr. Biden, wearing a black veil as is tradition — worked his way down a small line of Gentlemen of the Pope, aristocrats in tuxedos and white bow ties who are given the honor of serving the pope.

“It’s good to be back,” Mr. Biden told them, greeting one of the last of them by saying, “I’m Jill’s husband.” He then walked up steps flanked by Swiss guards and entered the palace.

The president and the pope had a 90-minute private meeting before joining Vatican officials and members of Mr. Biden’s traveling delegation. A White House official described the engagement as very warm and said there was laughter and a clear rapport between the two men.

Mr. Biden presented the pope with a 1930s handwoven fiddleback chasuble — an outer vestment worn by a priest during Mass — from Holy Trinity Catholic Church, a Jesuit church in Washington where Mr. Biden attended his first Mass as president. The White House will also donate winter clothing to charities as part of World Day for the Poor on Nov. 14.

Francis gave Mr. Biden an image painted on ceramic of a pilgrim on his way to St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Vatican released edited footage of Mr. Biden introducing the pope to members of his delegation and sharing gifts with him, including a presidential challenge coin.

“You are the most significant warrior for peace I’ve ever met, and with your permission I’d like to be able to give you a coin,” the president said. “It has the U.S. seal on the front.”

“I know my son would want me to give this to you,” he added, “because on the back of it I have the state of Delaware and the 261st unit my son served with” — a reference to the Army National Guard Unit that his oldest son, Beau, served with in Iraq. Beau Biden died in 2015, and months later, Francis requested a private audience with the Bidens during a trip he made to Washington.

“Now,” the president added on Friday, “the tradition is — and I’m only kidding about this — the next time I see you and you don’t have it, you have to buy the drinks.”

Mr. Biden also could not resist unspooling a folksy yarn. In a nod to their ages — he is 78 and Francis is 84 — he relayed a story about the baseball player Satchel Paige, a Black pitcher who joined the Major Leagues in his 40s.

“Usually, pitchers lose their arms when they’re 35,” Mr. Biden said. “He pitched a win on his 47th birthday. The press walked into the locker room and said — his name was Satchel Paige — they came in and said, ‘Satch, no one’s ever pitched a win at age 47. How do you feel about pitching a win on your birthday?’ He looked at them and said, ‘Boys, that’s not how I look at age. I look at it this way: How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’”

Mr. Biden closed the videotaped part of his meeting with a joke to the pope: “You’re 65, I’m 60. God love you.”

Credit…Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

ROME — President Biden’s first day of a four-day diplomatic tour through Italy and Scotland includes meetings with European leaders who are skeptical about the durability of American democracy and will cover thorny topics ranging from diplomatic spats to cooperating on counterterrorism measures.

But first came something he was visibly excited about.

At noon on the dot on Friday, the often-tardy Mr. Biden pulled up to the Vatican for his first meeting as president with Pope Francis, a fellow Roman Catholic and a pontiff with whom he shares a personal bond that was solidified when Francis visited Washington in 2015.

“Thank you so much,” said Mr. Biden, grinning from ear to ear, as he emerged from a limousine and shook hands with Vatican officials.

It was a diplomatic visit, but the personal resonance for the president was obvious. In his public appearances, Mr. Biden often briefly refers to an element of his upbringing in the church, pausing to relay the guidance of his Irish Catholic mother, pull a quote from a hymn or extol the importance of keeping faith in difficult moments.

Francis is the third pope Mr. Biden has met during his time in public office, beginning with John Paul II at the Vatican in 1980. As vice president, Mr. Biden met with Benedict XVI in 2011, telling him to “lighten up” on American nuns who were being investigated on suspicions that they had strayed too far from their mission.

It was Francis who asked to gather privately with Mr. Biden and his family after a tour of the United States in 2015. The meeting came about five months after the death of Mr. Biden’s oldest son, Beau, and “provided us with more comfort that even he, I think, will understand,” Mr. Biden said at the time.

The two men share significant similarities in their paths to leading two institutions that have become polarized from within. Both were passed over earlier in their lives, and both have reputations for shunning the perks of power: As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis was known for taking the bus, and as a senator Mr. Biden rode Amtrak to and from Delaware.

“They’re the regular guys,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, the director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. “They don’t embrace the trappings of power, not only not embrace it, they both resist that.”

Mr. Biden shares with the pope an approach to Christianity that is less focused on abortion and same-sex marriage and more on addressing poverty, climate change and racial inequality.

And while their similarities are undercut by a divide on issues like abortion and the plight of migrants, Francis has held warm meetings with other Catholics who favor abortion rights, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom he hosted recently.

“He’s reaching out to people that don’t agree with him 100 percent, whether they’re American politicians or cardinals in the church,” Mark K. Shriver, who wrote a book on Francis, said about the pope. Mr. Shriver, a nephew of John F. Kennedy, the first U.S. Catholic president, formed a group of Catholic Biden supporters during the campaign.

“He’s not banning them or sending them to Siberia,” Mr. Shriver added, “and he’s not doing that with Biden.”

Credit…Riccardo Antimiani/EPA, via Shutterstock

President Biden’s schedule on Friday, ahead of this weekend’s Group of 20 summit, is packed with critical meetings. He got together with Pope Francis and will sit down with President Emmanuel Macron of France, who is furious with the Americans over a scuttled submarine deal.

And Mr. Biden’s meeting with Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi, is not just a polite drop-by dictated by protocol.

With Angela Merkel of Germany leaving the scene, and Mr. Macron angry and embattled, Mr. Draghi has emerged as a leader of Europe, a proponent of shifting foreign policy back toward the United States after his country’s flirtation with populism, euroskepticism and even China. As such, he is a key interlocutor for an American president who needs a strong friend in Europe.

Mr. Draghi, renowned as the former European Central Bank president who helped save the euro, has already led Europe from behind, where Italy had found itself for years because of what critics call its lack of economic dynamism, slowness in dealing with the pandemic and unwillingness to challenge authoritarianism in countries like Turkey.

He is so well known to the Washington establishment that Janet Yellen, the U.S. Treasury secretary, wrote about Mr. Draghi for his inclusion in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2021.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Draghi were expected to discuss themes that will be addressed in this weekend’s G20 meeting, including climate change and the global economic recovery. They also are expected to discuss international hot spots, probably including Afghanistan and Libya.

Since taking office in February after a political crisis, Mr. Draghi has leveraged his European relationships, his skill in navigating E.U. institutions and his nearly messianic reputation to make Italy a player on the continent in a way it has not been in decades.

Even President Donald J. Trump, in the course of criticizing Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, joked, “We should have Draghi instead of our Fed person.”

Mr. Draghi has also struck a close alliance with Mr. Macron. That is no small thing given that before Mr. Draghi arrived, Italy’s current foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, a leader in the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, visited France to hang out with “Yellow Vest” protesters, prompting Mr. Macron to recall his ambassador to Italy.

But as strong as the relationship has become, there is daylight between the two countries. France is more assertive about what it calls strategic autonomy, essentially moving beyond the umbrella of military protection offered by NATO to start thinking of ways in which Europe can defend, and act, more for itself. Mr. Draghi is more sympathetic to staying put in the current architecture, something that the Italian government recognizes makes Italy more appealing to Mr. Biden.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Since their relationship imploded in a welter of recrimination six weeks ago, poisoned by what France saw as a betrayal by the United States over a sabotaged submarine deal, the two countries have worked hard to overcome the dispute. France has demanded “concrete” results.

Some of those results may be forthcoming when President Emmanuel Macron of France and President Biden meet on Friday in Rome on the margins of this weekend’s Group of 20 summit.

American and French officials said the United States was prepared to bolster France’s counterterrorism efforts in Africa, including possibly sending additional reconnaissance planes and drones to the $110 million airfield that the United States has built in the desert scrub near Agadez, Niger.

The Biden administration will also try to address one of Mr. Macron’s overriding concerns by giving guarded backing to a European military force that is separate from NATO, the officials said.

It would also be viewed in Paris as a sign of American respect for independent European strategic ambitions after the perceived insult of the secretly negotiated submarine deal that sunk a French contract to sell conventional submarines.

Officials said they hoped the American moves would put to rest the fight between the United States and France over the submarine deal with Australia, which withdrew from a contract with France to supply conventional submarines in favor of a deal worked out secretly with the United States and Britain.

“The United States is still our major ally,” said Gen. Thierry Burkhard, the French military’s chief of staff. “But what we need is a very clear sign that trust can still be there.”

Credit…Pool photo by Alessandro Di Meo

Warning global leaders that time is running out to address climate change, Pope Francis urged them on Friday to “take radical decisions” that would “provide effective responses to the present ecological crisis” when they gather at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow next week.

In a message recorded for “Thought of the Day,” a morning reflection broadcast daily on BBC Radio 4, Francis said that only urgent action could “offer concrete hope to future generations.”

The Vatican said this month that the pope would not attend the summit, known as COP26, even though Francis had said last month that he wanted to be present in Glasgow. Instead, the delegation will be headed by the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

From the outset of his papacy, which is now in its eighth year, Francis made clear that environmental issues would be a priority. He has noted that poor people suffer most as a result of an “ecological crisis” brought about by economic models, industrial systems, and policies that are detrimental to the environment.

In 2015, Francis issued “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home,” the first papal encyclical focused solely on the environment. A global call to better care for the planet, it was sweeping in ambition and scope.

In his message for the BBC, Francis made a reference to a joint appeal signed at the Vatican on Oct. 4 by religious leaders and scientists that urged Cop26 participants “to take speedy, responsible and shared action to safeguard, restore and heal our wounded humanity and the home entrusted to our stewardship.”

That effort, he said on Friday, requires “the need to work tirelessly to eliminate ‘the seeds of conflicts: greed, indifference, ignorance, fear, injustice, insecurity and violence.’”

“Humanity has never before had at its disposal so many means for achieving this goal,” Francis said. “And it is worth repeating that each of us, whoever and wherever we may be, can play our own part in changing our collective response to the unprecedented threat of climate change and the degradation of our common home.”

Credit…L’illustrazione italiana

The first meeting between an incumbent U.S. president and a sitting pope took place in 1919 during President Woodrow Wilson’s participation in the Paris Peace Conference after the end of World War I. That was also the first visit by a U.S. president to Europe.

Since then, the leaders of church and state have met on both sides of the Atlantic.

Credit…Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

In the run up to President Biden’s meeting with Pope Francis on Friday, leaders in the effort by some American bishops to deny the president the sacrament of communion over his support of abortion rights ramped up a pressure campaign urging the pontiff to take their side.

“Dear Pope Francis, You have boldly stated that abortion is ‘murder.’ Please challenge President Biden on this critical issue,” the arch-conservative Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., wrote on Twitter. “His persistent support of abortion is an embarrassment for the Church and a scandal to the world.”

But after his private meeting with the pope, Mr. Biden told reporters that the issue of abortion did not come up. It was not mentioned in the Vatican’s and the White House’s statements on the one-on-one audience.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, a leader among American prelates who are at odds with the pope, posted a letter on his website before the meeting, saying that American bishops would soon take up “the long-term and gravely scandalous situation of Catholic politicians who” both support abortion rights and present themselves for holy communion.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is considering whether to issue new guidance on denying the eucharist to such politicians. Francis has warned against such a move, arguing that bishops should stay out of politics and saying that he had never denied communion to any Catholic.

Cardinal Burke said that he had wanted to weigh in earlier, but that “recovery from recent health difficulties” had prevented it.

In August, he was hospitalized and put on a ventilator to treat an infection with Covid-19. A vaccine-skeptic, he had previously spread conspiracy theories that coronavirus vaccines could carry hidden microchips that made inoculated people prey to government control.

Pope Francis seemed to be referring to Cardinal Burke on a flight back to Rome from Slovakia in September when he told reporters on the papal plane that “even in the College of Cardinals, there are some negationists,” and noted that one of them — a “poor guy” — had been hospitalized with the virus.

Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

Pope Francis is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Rome, an encounter that comes against a backdrop of rising attacks against Indian Christians.

The country’s Christian leaders hope that Mr. Modi, who will meet the pontiff on Saturday for the first time, will use the opportunity to invite the pope to India, which is home to one of Asia’s oldest and largest Christian populations.

They say there is added urgency because Christians are increasingly being targeted by supporters of Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist political party. In recent months, mobs of Hindu extremists have attacked churches and beaten up worshipers.

“The meeting of these two leaders must help in bringing peace and harmony,” said Michael Williams, the president of the United Christian Forum, a nonprofit organization in New Delhi.

He added: “I am very positive about the meeting.”

The pope is also meeting with President Biden and other leaders on the sidelines of the summit.

India last hosted a papal visit in 1999, when Pope John Paul II arrived amid especially tight security and called for recognition of Catholics’ right to evangelize.

Catholic leaders say that they have urged Mr. Modi several times to invite Francis, but that powerful voices within the prime minister’s political alliance of Hindu nationalist groups have opposed it. Mr. Modi is often caught in this predicament: trying to present himself as a leader for all Indians and a player on the world stage, while not alienating his base, many of whom entertain extremist religious views.

Christians in India, numbering more than 30 million, make up about 2 percent of the country’s population. And many Christians believe that Thomas the Apostle landed on the southwestern Indian coast after Jesus was crucified.

As for the agenda of Mr. Modi’s papal meeting, the Indian government has been vague.

“What the discussions will be with the pope, I will not be able to tell right now,” Harsh Shringla, India’s foreign secretary, said at a news conference this week. “It is very evident that this is a very important meeting.”

“When the prime minister is going to Rome, to the Vatican, it is important that he meet the pope,” Mr. Shringla added. “And whether it will be a one-on-one or a delegation-level talks, that needs to be decided. But normally in such meetings, some delegation members are present from both sides.”

Credit…Michel Euler/Associated Press

As world leaders prepare to meet for this weekend’s Group of 20 summit in Rome on some of the greatest challenges facing the global community, a dispute much closer to home for Britain and France is swirling in the background.

A growing disagreement between the two countries over post-Brexit fishing rights in the English Channel has become a focal point for the summit and is expected to be a topic of discussion for the nations’ leaders.

George Eustice, Britain’s environment secretary, told Sky News on Friday that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was likely to raise the dispute with President Emmanuel Macron of France during the meetings.

Tensions have flared in recent weeks over fishing licenses. On Wednesday, France detained a British boat near the port of Le Havre and fined another two. The French authorities have threatened further action beginning on Tuesday unless Britain issues licenses to dozens of French boats.

France has said that a failure to issue the licenses would renege on a post-Brexit fishing agreement. Clement Beaune, France’s minister for Europe, said in a statement that unless the licenses are issued, the country will consider other retaliatory measures and has not ruled out limiting the electricity supply to the Channel Islands, British dependencies off the coast of France.

London has said that the French actions could violate international law. Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign minister, said in a statement that the government had summoned the French ambassador for talks on Friday “to explain the disappointing and disproportionate threats made against the U.K. and Channel Islands.”

The dispute has become increasingly heated as the two nations try to navigate a new relationship after Britain’s exit from the European Union. The fishing dispute even resulted in a short naval standoff in May after a longstanding agreement in the shared waterway ended and a post-Brexit agreement was forged in December.

Under that new agreement, European fishers can continue to work in some British waters if they prove that they had worked in the area before Brexit, but France and Britain have locked horns over what documentation is required. Last month, Britain and the Channel Islands refused licenses to about 240 boats that the French authorities say have fishing rights under the agreement.

France has threatened to add extra measures including checks and controls on other goods entering Britain from French ports, raising fears of further disruption to Britain’s already struggling transportation industry.





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