A page from Reagan’s playbook during Biden’s visit to the Pope?

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Steven P. Millies, Catholic Theological Union

(THE CONVERSATION) President Joe Biden, who will meet Pope Francis in the Vatican on October 29, is Catholic. The country’s first Catholic President, John F. Kennedy, also visited the Vatican. But meetings between US presidents and popes have been an integral part of politics since the Kennedy era, regardless of whether the president was Catholic or not.

Woodrow Wilson was the first incumbent president to meet a Pope and Pope Benedict XV. visited during the peace negotiations after the First World War. Dwight Eisenhower met John XXIII. as part of an international goodwill tour. Lyndon Johnson met Paul VI. for the first time when the Pope came to New York for an historic address at the United Nations in 1965. Richard Nixon met Paul VI. despite the Pope’s clear rejection of the Vietnam War twice. Gerald Ford met Paul VI in 1975. and Jimmy Carter welcomed the new Pope John Paul II in 1979.

These meetings all preceded the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See, as the Vatican City-State is known in formal diplomacy. In 1984 the two states finally exchanged ambassadors under Ronald Reagan and John Paul II. Both were committed anti-communists, and their attempt to forge official links marked an important geopolitical alliance.

In my research on the relationship between Catholicism and US politics, their partnership stands out as a turning point – and a boon to Reagan. Back then he needed a Catholic ally and found one in John Paul II.

And today, Biden is facing a somewhat similar situation.

Common cause

The Holy See has been an independent city-state since 1929, but in reality the Pope has been head of state since the 8th century at the latest.

It is a unique situation: a religious leader fully serving as head of state. Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church occupies a unique place in world history. As the first world power, the church has shaped world politics for centuries. Today, in addition to hosting more than a billion believers, the Church supports, directly and indirectly, an enormous amount of community service around the world.

When Reagan formalized longstanding US diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1984, the great influence of the Church provided a good reason. But not the only one.

The year before, shortly before his re-election campaign, Reagan had cause for concern that Catholic voters would not be able to support him. US bishops had published a pastoral letter entitled “The Challenge of Peace” which said that “good purposes (defending one’s own country, protecting freedom, etc.)” was a direct challenge to rearmament the Reagan administration that fueled the Cold War.

The government sought to discredit the bishops by suggesting that they were not keeping up with the Pope. American public opinion turned against the arms race, and Reagan needed a powerful ally who could help him hold onto the Catholic electorate.

Reagan found that ally in John Paul II, who shared his reservations about the Soviet Union. While the pastoral care of the bishops was being worked out – a litigation journalist Jim Castelli was following this closely – John Paul warned that the Church must not call on the US to unilaterally disarm. The Polish Pope had seen Soviet domination and hoped to free the world from communist influence.

Given the common cause of the President and the Pope, Rome would likely have more sympathy for Reagan’s perspective than the US bishops. Eight months after The Challenge of Peace was published and ten months before the 1984 elections, the US established diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

Abortion policy rose in the run-up to the election when New York Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo, the campaign Catholic, considered running for president. The Democrats eventually nominated Walter Mondale, with another Catholic, Geraldine Ferraro, as his running mate. Reagan, positioning himself as pro-life, drew attention to the issue in yet another effort to win back Catholic voters, with one assured of the Pope’s approval.

Reagan won the 1984 election with a historic landslide. It carried 49 states and accounted for the largest proportion of the Catholic vote that any Republican had won up to that point in history.

Another timely trip?

Today, 37 years later, the Biden presidency faces its own Catholic dilemma – the latest chapter in a long struggle for Catholics in US public life that reveals a deeper rift between US bishops and the Vatican.

Many US bishops want to ban public figures – the focus of every Catholic Mass – from receiving the sacrament if they support the right to abortion, which the Church considers a grave sin. In 2019, a South Carolina priest refused to offer communion to Biden because the politician endorsed the politician’s stance.

In November, US bishops will meet to discuss a “Eucharistic Coherence” document, which may contain instructions on who is entitled to communion.

But the Vatican has all but asked the bishops not to pursue the document.

“I have never denied the Eucharist to anyone,” Pope Francis told reporters in September 2021, urging priests to think about the issue of “as pastors” and not from a political point of view.

As Biden prepares for his papal visit, the government may have Reagan’s educational history in mind. The President, like Reagan, may find a more open ear in Rome than at home.

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