ROME — President Biden told reporters on Friday that Pope Francis had called him a “good Catholic” and said he should keep receiving communion, an unexpected development that appeared to put a papal finger on the scale in a debate raging in the United States’ Roman Catholic Church over whether the president and other Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be denied the sacrament.
In response to reporters who asked if Francis had told him during their private 75-minute audience at the Vatican whether he should keep receiving communion, Mr. Biden replied, “Yes.”
Asked to confirm Mr. Biden’s remarks, Matteo Bruni, the Vatican spokesman, said the Holy See limited its comments to the news release about subjects discussed during the meeting and added, “It’s a private conversation.”
With summits of the world’s economic powers promising few concrete takeaways, the pope’s apparently explicit encouragement for Mr. Biden to continue taking communion could be one of the most tangible accomplishments that the president brings home.
“A very strong choice,” said Alberto Melloni, a church historian in Rome, adding that he believed “the pope wanted people to know, and he wanted the American bishops not to take that path” toward denying Catholic politicians communion.
The Vatican — which did not allow public access to the meeting, citing coronavirus concerns — released heavily edited footage and later said in a statement that, in the private part of the meeting, Francis and Mr. Biden had focused “on the joint commitment to the protection and care of the planet, the health care situation and the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the theme of refugees and assistance to migrants.” It added that the talks had touched on human rights and freedom of religion.
Before Mr. Biden’s meeting with Francis, leaders in the effort by some American bishops to deny the president communion had intensified a pressure campaign urging the pontiff to take their side.
“Dear Pope Francis, You have boldly stated that abortion is ‘murder.’ Please challenge President Biden on this critical issue,” the arch-conservative Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., wrote on Twitter. “His persistent support of abortion is an embarrassment for the Church and a scandal to the world.”
The pope may not be inclined to entertain suggestions from Bishop Tobin, who is often viewed within the Vatican as hostile to Francis’ agenda.
Other prelates who hoped Francis might reprimand Mr. Biden have also spent years trying to undercut the pope’s authority.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, whom many allies of Francis see as the de facto leader of the opposition to the pope in the Vatican and the United States, posted a nearly 3,000-word letter on his website before the meeting. In it, he said that American bishops would soon take up “the long-term and gravely scandalous situation of Catholic politicians who” support abortion rights and receive communion.