Late last week, the White House released a photo of Vice President Joe Biden meeting with Pope Benedict during a recent trip to Italy. The meeting, which was unannounced and appeared on neither man’s official schedule, took Vatican watchers by surprise. But many were even more thrown by the Vatican’s silence about the papal audience.
Biden is the first Catholic vice president and the highest-ranking Catholic in the U.S. government. When then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (also Catholic) met with Pope Benedict in February 2009, the Vatican seemed to go out of its way to emphasize the fact that Pelosi received a papal lecture about her support for abortion rights. A statement released after the meeting said that the Pope “briefly greeted” Pelosi, and then “His Holiness took the opportunity to speak of the requirements of the natural moral law and the church’s consistent teaching on the dignity of human life from conception to natural death.”
The Vice President supports abortion rights as well, although unlike Pelosi he has also said he accepts church teaching that life begins at conception. And yet, in what Catholic News Service called “an unusual move,” the Vatican did not comment on Biden’s papal audience. The only official mention of the meeting was a one-sentence summary in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano reporting after the fact that the audience took place.
Biden’s conservative critics will be disappointed that the Pope did not choose to publicly remind Biden of the church’s opposition to abortion. During the 2008 campaign, several U.S. Catholic leaders, including Archbishop Charles Chaput in Denver, criticized Biden’s position on abortion and said he should refrain from taking communion. The Pope himself wrote a memo to U.S. bishops in 2004 (as then-Cardinal Ratzinger) supporting the practice of denying communion to Catholic politicians who consistently vote in support of abortion rights.
No one is saying why the Pope chose not to make an example out of Biden on the occasion of their meeting. But the Vice President is no doubt offering a few prayers of thanks for that silence.