Unusual secrecy attends Biden’s first meeting with Pope Francis as president

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By Jack Jenkins

The unusually veiled meeting is stoking speculation about whether the two will discuss the incendiary debates going on among the U.S. bishops over the second Catholic U.S. president’s abortion stance.

(RNS) — When President Ronald Reagan visited St. John Paul II in June of 1982 with first lady Nancy Reagan, the press trailed the distinguished group as the pontiff squired the couple and their staffers to the Vatican’s inner sanctums and looked on, according to a New York Times reporter, as “a group of 200 American seminarians and priests suddenly erupted into a prolonged roaring ovation,” followed by choruses of ”America the Beautiful” and ”God Bless America.”

No such display awaits President Joseph Biden as he arrives at the Apostolic Palace on Friday (Oct. 29) to huddle for the first time as president with Pope Francis — or at least not one visible to reporters. Instead, Biden will be greeted in the palace courtyard by a monsignor and taken inside, where the president and the pontiff will exchange greetings out of sight of the public. The press will watch Biden’s entrance from beyond shouting distance, and even the cameras that normally broadcast the pope welcoming world leaders live, the Vatican announced Thursday, will not be rolling. 

The unusual clampdown surrounding what is expected to be a roughly hour-long conversation is all the more curious as this pope and president are perhaps more aligned on world affairs than any combination since Reagan met the equally anti-communist, socially conservative John Paul II. And given that Biden is a Catholic, and one who supports abortion rights for women, the odd silence has only stoked interest in what Francis will say, if anything, about the debate among the U.S. Catholic bishops over whether such a president should receive Communion.

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