Back on the history of the meeting of American presidents with the Pope: NPR
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By late Friday morning, President Biden will have met Pope Francis – marking the 31st time that a president has met the head of the Catholic Church.
The convergence of the White House and the Vatican is just a tradition that began at the turn of the 20th century under President Woodrow Wilson. Even after Wilson, the next president would not meet the pontiff again until about 40 years later.
“It really is a modern phenomenon,” Shaun Casey, professor at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, told NPR. Casey is also a senior researcher at the university’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.
For Biden, whose Roman Catholicism is part of his public personality as well as an essential part of his personal life, this meeting with Pope Francis will be both personal and formal, according to the White House.
With the Obama administration and now the Biden administration, “I think they have found in Pope Francis a very willing partner to tackle some of these massive global issues like climate change, like refugees,” said Casey. “When you see the political policies overlap, you see a deepening of the bond and a deepening of the relationship between the two entities. And we are in one of those moments.”
But as other historical and theological experts have shared with NPR, these meetings were not always so important.
The first meeting did not take place until 1919
In January 1919, Woodrow Wilson was on a month-long trip to Europe following the First World War.
“On January 4, Mr. Wilson called his Holiness Pope Benedict XV”, according to America magazine at the time. Benedict greeted Wilson “very cordially. They spent about half an hour together. Of course, we do not officially know what subjects they discussed ”.
Wilson’s meeting with the Pope, which took place at a time when the United States harbored major anti-Catholic sentiment, is far different from what the White House’s relationship with the Vatican is today.
Such a meeting was viewed in the United States as “politically charged,” Casey said. “There was no political advantage for a president to meet with a pope at that time.”
ApparentlyWilson would not stray from his face-to-face with the Pope completely unharmed. An awkward moment came when the pontiff offered a papal blessing to those around the White House. Wilson refused, but offered Catholics on his staff to receive one.
It was after President Dwight D. Eisenhower met Pope John XXIII in the Vatican that a meeting between a president and a pope became more normalized and a tradition.
Biden is only the second Catholic president
About one in five American adults is Roman Catholic, according to Pew Research Center. Yet before Biden, John F. Kennedy was the only Catholic president to serve.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry, who is now the President’s Special Envoy for Climate, was the only other Catholic to appear on a major party’s presidential candidate list since Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 .
According to the Pew Research Center, historically about a quarter of presidents – including George Washington, James Madison, and Franklin Roosevelt – were members of the Episcopal Church. The second largest group is that of Presbyterians, with eight presidents, who make it their denomination.
Kennedy faced anti-Catholic sentiment during his presidential run, so his meeting with the Pope was closely watched, said Mark S. Markuly, former dean of the Faculty of Theology and the Ministry of Justice. ‘University of Seattle.
At the time, many Americans believed that Kennedy, as a Catholic, would have competing loyalties to the Vatican and the United States, he said.
The first papal visit to the White House took place in 1979
Once meetings with the Pope became more normalized, the Pontiff eventually traveled to the United States – but it was a rare event.
On October 6, 1979, Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit the White House. He arrived in style – in an open-top limousine – and met then-President Jimmy Carter.
“The people of our country have waited a long time for this meeting,” Carter said at the time.
The second pope to stop at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was Pope Benedict XVI, who visited the White House on April 16, 2008 – also the pontiff’s 81st birthday, aAccording to the White House Historical Association. President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush surprised the Pope with a birthday cake before meeting in private.
And on September 23, 2015, Pope Francis became the third pontiff in history to visit the White House during the Obama administration.
Under Regan, the dynamics change
Carter’s meeting with Pope John Paul II helped kick off a diplomatic relationship between the United States and the Vatican – one that President Ronald Reagan would build on.
Reagan saw a soul mate in the Pope when it came to tackling the threat of communism in the 1980s, according to Matt Dallek, political historian and professor of political management at George Washington University.
The then Pope, who lived in Communist-era Poland and under the Nazi regime, was a staunch anti-Communist. He supported the Polish Solidarity Movement, which is widely seen as having a major role in ending the Communist regime in Poland.
“Reagan and the Pope really shared this sensibility,” Dallek said. “Certainly the meeting with the Pope, and I think the alignment with the Pope politically has been helpful.”
In 1984, the United States officially recognized and exchanged ambassadors to the Holy See.
Navigation has not always been smooth
John Paul II was a staunch critic of the Iraq war – an issue that caused awkward moments with President George W. Bush.
When Bush last met the Pope at the Vatican in June 2004, the Pope called for an early return to Iraqi sovereignty and took a moment to criticize the ongoing war there.
And former President Donald Trump’s relations with Pope Francis were much more strained than those of his predecessor.
During the 2016 campaign, Francis took what was seen as a blow to Trump by criticizing the future president’s take on building a wall in Mexico. Francis said those who want to build walls instead of bridges are “not Christians”.
Vatican / Corbis Pool via Getty Images
Trump later responded, criticizing the pontiff’s comments and suggesting that Francis was a “pawn” for Mexico.
Once the two met in person, images of the pontiff frowning as he stood next to Trump became a punchline.
Casey, from Georgetown, said Biden’s meeting with Pope Francis was important after the Trump presidency.
“Biden is mending a fractured diplomatic relationship,” he said. This meeting and what is said will be “a signal to the Vatican that you now have a partner in the White House”.