On Friday, President Joe Biden met with Pope Francis for the first time since he took office. Biden, a deeply devout man and the country’s second Catholic president, spoke with Francis privately for 75 minutes—a remarkable amount of time and more than twice as long as Francis’ significantly less warm meeting with President Donald Trump. When Biden emerged from the meeting, he indicated that the conversation had amounted to a major repudiation of the conservatives in the U.S. church: The two hadn’t discussed abortion, Biden said. And, more crucially, he said the pope had told him that he was a “good Catholic” and should “keep receiving Communion.”
The question of whether Biden’s support for abortion rights could disqualify him from receiving Holy Communion has been the major point of attack for conservative Catholics and one of the most divisive Catholic controversies in recent history. In June, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, considered to be one of the most conservative bishop conferences in the world, openly debated the question, ultimately electing to draft a document clarifying its understanding of the sacrament. In that debate, several prelates directly referenced Biden, with Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City ranting against “a Catholic president that’s doing this, the most aggressive thing we’ve ever seen in terms of this attack on life.”
Since then, conservative Catholics have continued to assert that clergy should turn Biden away should he ask for Communion, citing canon law rules around who can and cannot be “in Communion” with the church. Denying a politician the Eucharist, one of the most sacred elements of Catholic faith, for his political positions would come as a shock in the Catholic world. As Biden’s defenders have pointed out, St. John Paul II gave Communion to a former mayor of Rome who supported abortion rights. Still, the debate isn’t entirely new. Pope Benedict XVI, Francis’ predecessor, had himself indicated that he believed that those who persisted in supporting abortion access should be barred from receiving Communion. While he was still a cardinal, Benedict wrote a letter to U.S. bishops arguing that it was “not a sanction or a penalty” but an outcome of the person becoming “unworthy” to receive Communion because of “an objective situation of sin.”
But Pope Francis does not share Benedict’s philosophy. He has very frequently spoken about the Eucharist as “nourishment” for a sinner’s soul, not as a reward for the pure. And while Francis is firm in his position that abortion amounts to “murder,” he has also emphasized that abortion is not the preeminent Catholic issue and that defending migrants, the poor, and other vulnerable groups is of equal importance. In May, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote in a letter that the American debate over the Eucharist could “become a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger church in the United States” and that it was “misleading” to portray abortion and euthanasia as “the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching.”
Francis came closest to directly addressing the debate in September, when he told reporters that he had “never refused the Eucharist to anyone.” He did add that he was unaware of any instances in which a pro-choice politician had received Communion from him, but he concluded his comments by arguing that bishops should be “pastors” rather than “politicians.”
Still, Francis has held back on explicitly commenting on the Biden-Eucharist question, in part to avoid amplifying the debate or alienating conservative Catholics in the U.S. (The Vatican did not confirm anything about Francis’ conversation with Biden, saying it was “private.”) The Vatican is well aware that Biden will not be denied Communion, given that the decision is ultimately up to a parishioner’s local bishop, and Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory has been very clear that he will not deny Communion to anyone. But Francis’ silence on the matter allowed conservatives to continue to speculate with the cover of ambiguity. Now they will no longer have that cover.
That is, as long as they take Biden at his word. Given the early reaction from conservative Catholics casting such doubt, many will still be able to stake their position while maintaining that they are not in conflict with the pope. But it’s not the regular lay Catholics who have the ultimate say in this. Next month, the U.S. bishops will meet to debate and vote on their document on the Eucharist. And while individual conservative Catholics will likely continue to debate the question until Francis himself puts out a statement asserting that Biden should continue to receive Communion, it may just be that for the bishops participating in the conference, this latest comment from Francis finally puts the issue to bed.