Biden's meeting with Pope Francis puts a spotlight on rifts in Catholic Church

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President Biden’s meeting with Pope Francis on Friday highlights a growing divide within the Catholic Church over the president’s policies that are out of step with the church doctrine.

Mr. Biden, who is the nation’s second Catholic president, attends mass regularly and has advocated policies the church largely supports, including ending the death penalty, combating climate change and reducing poverty.

Mr. Biden’s faith has been showcased in his public life. He keeps a picture of Pope Francis behind his desk in the Oval Office and carries a rosary that once belonged to his deceased son, Beau.

But Mr. Biden also takes positions that violate church teachings such as his drive to expand access to abortion and promote gay and transgender lifestyles.

This unique brand of progressive Catholicism has exacerbated deep-rooted tensions within the church.

Left-leaning church leaders have highlighted Pope Francis’ social and economic justice and environmental priorities over abortion and religious freedom. In response, a conservative movement at odds with Pope Francis’ stance on immigration and climate change has emerged.

The ideological schism was evident in the 2020 election results where Catholics evenly split between Mr. Biden and his opponent, former President Donald Trump.

Associated Press polling data revealed that 50% of Catholics backed Mr. Trump while 49% voted for Mr. Biden, a lifelong member of the faith.

The split is particularly unique because other religious voters were more monolithic. For example, about 80% of White evangelicals went for Mr. Trump, while Mr. Biden won more than 60% of the Jewish vote.

Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org, a conservative advocacy group, said Mr. Biden is “overwhelmingly unpopular” among Catholics who regularly practice their faith and attend mass. However, Catholics who don’t subscribe to all the tenants of the church or attend mass regularly have a more favorable opinion of Mr. Biden, he noted.

“These people are less soured on him because he is one of them. Someone who includes all of the trappings but isn’t fully embracing the faith,” Mr. Burch said.

Mr. Biden’s effort to walk the tightrope of openly displaying his faith while overlooking the church’s teachings on abortion and other issues has already landed him in hot water with the Catholic bishops.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will convene next month to debate whether pro-choice politicians such as Mr. Biden should be denied the Eucharist, one of the most sacred sacraments in the Church.

After a contentious debate this summer, 168 bishops voted to draft a statement to address that question within a larger document on the importance of the Eucharist. The final document will not name Mr. Biden or other Catholics who also support abortion rights, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

The flap forced Pope Francis to walk a tightrope of his own. When asked in September if he supported the Eucharistic ban, the pope warned bishops not to let politics enter into questions about receiving Communion. He also repeated that abortion was “homicide” and the Eucharist cannot be given to anyone who is not “in communion” with the church, though he declined to say if pro-abortion politicians were out of communion.

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, an organization working against anti-Catholic discrimination, said he views Mr. Biden’s meeting with the pope as a way to confront the controversy with the U.S. bishops.

“Biden knows he’s in trouble with the bishops here at home so this is a good photo op,” Mr. Donohue said.

Mr. Biden has expressed anger over those who’ve criticized his refusal to embrace all of the church’s teachings.

“The next Republican that tells me I’m not religious, I’m going to shove my rosary down their throat,” he famously said in 2007.

When pressed on whether Mr. Biden and the pope would discuss abortion, White House press secretary Jen Psaki chose to highlight the common ground among the two leaders.

“There is a great deal of agreement and overlap with the president and Pope Francis on a range of issues: poverty, combatting the climate crisis, ending the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

While she wouldn’t say if the president and pope would address the abortion issue, she did double on Mr. Biden’s support for abortion rights.

“You’re familiar with where the president stands,” she said. “He’s somebody who stands up for and believes that a woman’s right to choose is important.”

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