NEWS ANALYSIS: Joe Biden, whose globalist, humanitarian and politically liberal vision finds sympathizers in the Vatican, had been quick on the campaign trail to use Pope Francis’ words, despite the politician’s dissent from Catholic teaching on abortion and marriage.
VATICAN CITY — Neither Pope Francis nor the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, have spoken publicly about last week’s U.S. presidential election, possibly waiting for a definitive result.
But over the course of the 2020 election campaign, especially in the weeks leading up to the vote, words and actions coming from both Pope Francis and his advisers suggest their preferred candidate was Joe Biden, whose globalist, humanitarian and politically liberal vision closely matches their own.
Vatican officials refrained from inviting Biden to a Vatican conference this year, unlike Bernie Sanders in 2016, but that didn’t prevent them from tacitly supporting Biden’s campaign in other ways, and one of the most apparent examples was the Holy Father’s latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (“Brothers All”).
Published just a month before the Nov. 3 election, it contained numerous passages that soon served as campaign material for Biden, which the former vice president used as an indictment of Trump’s presidency. Under the heading, “A better kind of politics,” the Pope argued against a form of populism that can become “another source of polarization” and division.
Biden, who supports same-sex “marriage” and taxpayer-funded abortion, and has threatened to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for their employees’ contraception, while underscoring his Catholic roots, quickly latched on to the Pope’s words.
“Pope Francis warns us against this phony populism that appeals to the basest and most selfish instinct,” he told supporters at a campaign rally in Warm Springs, Georgia, on Oct. 27. “[Francis] goes on to say politics is more noble than posturing, marketing and media spin. These sow nothing but division, conflict and bleak cynicism.”
The Pope also reiterated in Fratelli Tutti his passionate concern for the environment, as well as for migrants, repeating his criticism of building walls to keep them out — a condemnation of Trump’s border wall policy to stop illegal immigrants that dates back to 2016. He also criticized in his encyclical politicians who use social media to insult others — an implicit rebuke of Trump’s use of Twitter.
The encyclical contained passages that reflected some Republican ideals and concerns, such as the power and overreach of big tech, but it was also read as more of a political treatise than a Christocentric spiritual document, advocating the kind of socially liberal “utopia” promoted by Biden and his supporters.
Further, in an apparent slight to President Donald Trump, the Pope refused in September to grant a private audience to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Pompeo’s earlier criticism of the Vatican’s approach to China and his visit being so close to the U.S. elections were the reported reasons.)
Then, in late October, comments Pope Francis made in 2019 on same-sex civil unions emerged, in an edited form, in a Vatican-awarded documentary. The remarks, which revealed Francis’ first public endorsement of such legislation as Pope, effectively underlined his support for a policy long backed by Biden and social liberals in the Church, but which critics said clearly contradicts the magisterium.
A couple of months earlier, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, criticized Catholic politicians for promoting or endorsing legal protections for abortion. His words were criticized by pro-life groups for warning against turning the pro-life cause into an ideological weapon that, he said, can do “great harm.”
A conference hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in February gave a platform to anti-Trump figures such as the economist Jeffrey Sachs, an active supporter of Bernie Sanders and a population control advocate. Sachs, a contributor to Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, warned that Trump’s re-election in November would be “absolutely dangerous” to the world. Sitting beside him and appreciating the remarks was another close papal adviser, the academy’s chancellor, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo.
Another papal confidant, Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, whom the Pope earlier this year reappointed coordinator of the Council of Cardinals advising Francis on curial reform, also made no secret of his dislike of Trump, wildly alleging the U.S. president was part of a “network against Pope Francis” that consisted of the president’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and former apostolic nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Viganò.
“This network doesn’t want change,” Cardinal Rodríguez said in the Sept. 28 interview with La Repubblica. “They want everyone to remain as they’ve always been: having a rigidity that’s not good for the whole Church.” Pompeo’s visit to the Vatican, the cardinal added, was electioneering.
Publications such as the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, mostly offered neutral reporting on the election, in contrast to the pro-Obama editorial position it clearly took in 2009 under its previous editor. So, too, did the Jesuit periodical La Civiltà Cattolica, edited by close papal adviser Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, who is usually a strong critic of the American Christian political right.
And yet omissions were also revealing. In the run-up to the election, Vatican officials were silent about Trump administration policies that coincided with the Church’s social doctrine: its strong pro-life position, its defense of religious freedom and persecuted Christians, its successful mediation of Arab-Israeli peace agreements and its efforts to combat human trafficking.
But now that the election has passed, those closest to Francis have not hesitated to publicly welcome the prospect of a Biden administration, despite Trump having not yet conceded.
In a Nov. 8 interview with the Italian news agency Adnkronos, Father Spadaro said Biden’s resolve to “hold together” such a “strongly polarized” country needs to be “developed,” but at the same time he noted a “certain confluence” of people of ”very different origins” and religions. This shows, Father Spadaro said, “that the president himself poses as a president of unity and reconciliation.”
Biden’s speech on election night (“We’re not enemies, we’re Americans”) means that Biden is an “important figure” who reflects the “desire not to divide but to unite a very polarized society,” Father Spadaro continued. “In this sense he responds well to the Pope’s appeal to be builders of bridges and not walls.”
No mention was made in the article of Biden’s, or vice-president-elect Kamala Harris’, support for abortion, their support for the same-sex agenda or socially liberal leanings, but rather hope was expressed that Biden would lead the U.S. to re-enter the Paris agreement on climate change.
Father Spadaro touted Biden’s “Catholic sensibility,” as making possible other areas of convergence, stressing that the Democratic politician has said he would be “open to the promptings of society.” The Jesuit also expected women to have a greater role in government, and noted that Harris, “a woman from India,” is a “very strong exponent of immigration.”
Opinions naturally differ more widely within the Vatican about the possibilities of a Biden presidency, just as they do everywhere else, but for leading figures of this pontificate, Biden’s presumptive win was undoubtedly what they were hoping for all along.