Biden Communion Fight Raises Stakes for Vatican Ambassador Pick
No president has ever faced the risk of an ambassadorial nomination potentially affecting his personal relationship with the Catholic Church—until now.
The decision by right-wing Catholic leaders to begin drafting a statement that could potentially allow bishops to deny the sacrament of Holy Communion to politicians whose stances on social issues stand in conflict with those of the church has injected a political fight into one of the faith’s most sacred religious rites.
The conflict has also put increasing pressure on President Joe Biden to name an ambassador to the Holy See who would help smooth the rising disputes between Pope Francis, long seen by both supporters and detractors as a would-be modernizer, and the American wing of the Catholic Church, which is increasingly politically conservative.
But former ambassadors, Vatican-watchers and those close to the Bidens tell The Daily Beast that hopes that an incoming ambassador to the Vatican may help iron out long-standing doctrinal disputes and fraught internal church politics misunderstand the role of ambassador—and could actually inflame relations to the point of an Anglican-style realignment, or even a schism.
“President Biden is walking a very fine line here: He’s our second Catholic president, he undoubtedly wants a good relationship with this pope and with the Vatican, and he doesn’t want to fuel the right. So it’s a tough job,” said Miguel H. Díaz, who served as the United States ambassador to the Holy See from 2009 to 2012. “I don’t envy the administration thinking about who will become the new ambassador.”
“The conservative right has continued to weaponize religion in this country,” another former ambassador to the Holy See told The Daily Beast. “On the areas of religious freedom with freedom of conscience, I think that [Biden] needs to do tremendous work on bridging the gap between religious rights on one hand, and other human rights on the other. It’s not settling a feud at the church potluck.”
The diplomatic relationship between the U.S. government and the Vatican is both long-standing and unusual, as most would assume diplomacy between a theocratic elective absolute monarchy and a secular democratic republic would be. A president, after all, is the elected representative of a nation; a pope is the elected representative of a nation and of God himself. A feud between the two, then, represents not only a diplomatic crisis, but a divine one as well.
President John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first Catholic president, faced criticism ahead of his election from non-Catholics over fears that he would ultimately answer not to the American people but to the pope. Kennedy sought to calm those fears by telling the Houston Ministers Conference that he was not “the Catholic candidate for president,” but a candidate for president “who happens also to be a Catholic.”
“I do not speak for my church on public matters,” Kennedy said in a speech that would later be seen as a landmark address on the wall between church and state, “and the church does not speak for me.”
President Joe Biden, who six decades later is only the nation’s second Catholic president, now faces criticism from within the church that he is “not a Catholic in good standing” due to his stances on abortion and same-sex relationships (which, unlike his personal view on the death penalty, conflict with official church doctrine).
“If someone says, ‘I’m a devout Catholic,’ and at the same time is promoting abortion, it gives the impression to others that it’s acceptable for Catholics to be in favor of abortion,” Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis and a prominent conservative voice within the Catholic Church, told Catholic Action for Faith and Family in a now-private YouTube interview ahead of Biden’s election. “And of course, it’s absolutely not acceptable. Never has been. Never will be.”
Polling data suggests that everyday Catholic churchgoers do not subscribe to the notion that support for abortion access is disqualifying. But Burke’s view on Biden’s Eucharistic worthiness was nonetheless manifested earlier this month when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a plan during its annual spring meeting to draft a “teaching document” outlining the role of the Eucharist and potentially linking the political beliefs of elected leaders with their ability to receive Holy Communion—an act that represents a churchgoing Catholic’s personal communion with Jesus Christ—effectively tying a politician’s stance on issues like abortion and same-sex relationships to their ability to receive a sacrament at the heart of Catholic worship.
“The Eucharist itself will be a tool in vicious partisan turmoil—it will be impossible to prevent its weaponization, even if everyone wants to do so,” warned San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy in a contentious debate ahead of the measure’s passage, 168 votes to 55. “Once we legitimize public policy-based exclusion… we’ll invite all political animosity into the heart of the Eucharistic celebration.”
In response to uproar at the prospect of the nation’s most prominent observant Catholic—Biden attends Mass at least once a week, as he has for nearly his entire adult life—the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has since de-emphasized the possibility of a national policy on withholding communion from pro-choice officials, noting that it is up to local bishops to make that decision.
“There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians,” the USCCB released in a statement four days after the vote. “The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.”
But the conference’s backtracking isn’t the first time that Biden has faced attacks from fellow Catholics over his stances on social issues that contradict official church doctrine. A South Carolina priest denied Biden communion when he attended Mass in October 2019, stating afterward that “any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of church teaching.” Biden also was attacked during the Republican National Convention as a “Catholic in name only” by former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz ahead of his election.
The president himself told reporters after the initial vote that while his partaking in Holy Communion was personal, he didn’t put much stock in the prospect of being denied the rite due to his political stances.
“That’s a private matter,” Biden said on June 18, in response to a question from a reporter, “and I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
The religious debate over perceived conflicts between Biden’s faith and his politics has raised the stakes for his as-yet-unnamed nominee to serve as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, a position of growing diplomatic sensitivity as American church leadership has grown increasingly politically conservative.
President Barack Obama—who was once falsely accused of closing the Vatican embassy by converted Catholic presidential candidate Jeb Bush— reportedly had three potential nominees rejected due to their personal stances on abortion rights, which Vatican officials told local newspapers amounted to “a calculated insult to the Holy See.” But no president has ever faced the risk of an ambassadorial nomination potentially affecting his personal relationship with the church.
“The administration does need to be careful to find an appointee with a record that won’t be unnecessarily provocative, either for the Vatican or for the U. S. bishops,” said Dr. Stephen Schneck, a Catholic political activist and executive director of the non-profit Franciscan Action Network. “Could it be a pro-choice person? It could be, I think, if it were a person whose pro-choice record was relatively anodyne and if that person had sufficient gravitas in Washington, in Rome, and among the top U.S. bishops. I wouldn’t counsel this, however.”
The White House has strongly pushed back on the notion that the USCCB decision would ever guide Biden’s policy views.
“Joe Biden is a strong man of faith,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last week. “It’s personal to him—he doesn’t see it through a political prism, and we’re not going to comment otherwise on the inner workings of the Catholic Church.”
Biden isn’t alone in struggling with the increasingly reactionary American wing of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis himself has faced growing tensions with the USCCB and its backers in the United States in recent years, in part due to his historic openness (by papal standards, anyway) to allowing for acceptance of those long scorned by conservative religious leaders, including LGBT people. But Biden’s ambassador will have to thread the needle between domestic political matters—which are normally beyond the purview of any ambassador—and the obvious tensions between the USCCB decision and how Biden’s stances on abortion access, LGBT rights, and scientific research affect American foreign policy priorities.
“In addition to the usual requirements for any ambassadorial appointment, an appointment to the Holy See requires someone who has a solid understanding of the complexities of Catholic teachings on a host of policy issues at the center of the often fraught relations between the Catholic Church and the U. S. government,” said Schneck, who served as a national co-chair of Catholics for Obama in 2012. “That understanding would need to include not just the relations between the current administration and Rome but also the politics and policies of the American Catholic bishops in Washington.”
Missteps, Schneck said, could sour relations extremely quickly—as evidenced by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s widely ridiculed visit in September 2020, when he faced accusations by Vatican officials of using the pope’s office to further President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.
“For President Biden, because he is perhaps the second most famous Catholic, the landscape is even more tricky,” Schneck said.
But Biden’s ambassador would still be in a powerful position to arbitrate, even unofficially, in conversations between the American church and the Holy See, which are increasingly divided on both doctrinal and political issues.
“It is a religious institution that has eyes and ears in every corner of the world, and therefore it makes this diplomatic relationship very, very, very important when it comes to being able to deal with various challenges that are happening throughout the world,” said Díaz. “This diplomatic post becomes important because when you have conflicts… you have the ability to quickly mobilize or have some kind of conversations that can give you important information quickly.”
Even among the notoriously gossipy Vatican press corps, the list of potential ambassadorial candidates remains long. Elizabeth Frawley Bagley, a longtime Democratic donor and a former ambassador to Portugal, has been floated as a potential nominee, as has Alexia Kelley, a Catholic philanthropist who is a veteran of both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Obama White House. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s name has been floated in some Vatican press corps coffee klatches, as has Schneck’s.
To the casual observer, none of the leading candidates are seen as overtly provocative—whereas the potential selection of someone whose identity stands athwart Catholic orthodoxy would be a “non-starter,” according to Schneck, in part because nominating an openly gay ambassador or an ambassador who had been divorced would distract from areas of shared interest between Pope Francis and Biden, “areas such as climate change, global poverty, immigration, human rights, and peace.”
“The key to building smooth relations would be naming an ambassador whom the Vatican knows has a direct relationship with President Biden,” said Schneck. “It should be someone who thoroughly understands the complicated minefield of church teachings, American policies, and the processes and politics by which things are done in the Vatican and Washington. Someone who ‘gets’ Pope Francis.”
But there is still room for an ambassador to the Holy See who might fulfill Biden’s pledge to create what would be the most diverse diplomatic corps in American history: naming a non-Catholic ambassador. Such a choice would be a first for the United States.
“You have to try to find common ground, to maximize cooperation in the benefit of a common good,” Díaz said. “The ambassador is solely charged with representing the United States on issues of foreign policy. Everything else is extraneous.”