Unholy Alliance: Pope Francis and President Biden

Two Catholic newspapers battle it out over the U.S. president's visit to Rome.

The gap between liberal and conservative Catholic news outlets in the U.S. intensified significantly after President Biden’s jocular meeting with Pope Francis in Rome on October 29.  The 75-minute meeting barring reporters and live streaming was purportedly about climate change although what emerged as the big news afterwards was Biden’s middle finger metaphorical ‘f---u’ to those U.S. Catholic bishops who would bar him from receiving Communion over the abortion issue.

“He [meaning the pope] said to keep receiving Communion,” a victorious Biden announced after the two were photographed laughing and joking together. (A real pope, of course, would have handed the president his excommunication papers.)

“If the pope said I can receive, then those who say I can’t can go to hell,” is what the permanently ashen faced president seemed to be suggesting. Biden’s boasting (“the pope says I can”) seemed to dare U.S, bishops to move forward with censure. First Lady Jill Biden, beaming in her mini mantilla (worlds away from Jacqueline Kennedy’s dramatic shoulder length mantilla at her meeting with Pope John XXIII in 1962) also seemed to be basking in pope’s seal of approval.  

The American Catholic Church has come a long way since 1960 when some Protestants were so terrified of electing the first Catholic president that they spawned the myth that if elected John Kennedy would build an underground tunnel from Washington to Rome.  While the secret tunnel rhetoric is long gone (it’s been swapped for a photo of the pope in the Biden Oval Office), so has the “existential” distance between Rome and the White House because in many ways Francis and Joe Biden are one.

Biden’s visit to Rome was just one of the many stories covered in the pages of the two major mainstream U.S. Catholic newspapers, The National Catholic Reporter (progressive) and The National Catholic Register (conservative). Editorially, these publications are so different from one anther they seem to confirm what a priest told me some time ago that, “The Catholic Church is really two Churches now.”  The Reporter, based in Kansas City, Missouri, was founded in 1964 by a man named Robert Hoyt for “Catholics who struggle with the complex moral and societal issues of the day.” While Hoyt’s description sounds like healthy inquiry and a forum for intellectual debate, what’s usually printed in The Reporter’s pages are attack pieces on long held Catholic beliefs and articles friendly to the left progressive agenda of radical Democrats.    

The Reporter’s slogan in the 1960s was, “Published by and for the People,” a suspect socialist moniker that covers a lot of ideological territory. In 1968, the Bishop of Kansas City, Charles H. Helmsing, demanded that The Reporter remove the word ‘Catholic’ from its name and added that the publication had “a poisonous character that watered down Church teaching.” The Reporter was criticized by another Kansas City Bishop, Robert Finn, in 2013. “From my perspective,” Bishop Finn said, “NCR's positions against authentic Church teaching and leadership have not changed trajectory in the intervening decades.”  Bishop Finn considered the newspaper to be an "independent newspaper which commented on 'things Catholic.”

The National Catholic Register, founded in 1927 by Matthew J. Smith, is part of the Eternal World Television Network (EWTN) and the Catholic News Agency. It boasts a larger circulation than its leftist counterpart and has never had to defend the use of the word ‘Catholic’ in its name. The two newspapers haven’t had much to do with one another until recently when Pope Francis referred to EWTN indirectly to a group of Jesuits in Slovakia.

"There is, for example,” Francis said, “a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope. I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the church does not deserve them. They are the work of the devil. I have also said this to some of them.”  

Coming to EWTN’s defense in a piece in the October issue of First Things was the former Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput. Chaput, a New York Times best selling author, is a man of keen theological intellect. A stickler for Church doctrine, he has refused communion for Catholic politicians who support abortion and euthanasia and he roused the anger of the Philadelphia gay community after his refusal to compromise on the issue of same sex marriage. As Archbishop of Philadelphia, he inherited the financial disasters necessitating school and church closures. He also had to deal with the leftist Philadelphia media that began demonizing him the moment he was appointed archbishop in 2011.

When Chaput’s term as Philadelphia archbishop ended in January 2020, the Rev. Nelson Jesus Perez was chosen to head the Philadelphia Archdiocese. The rejoicing in Philadelphia and in national media over Chaput’s retirement was tantamount to the roar of Stanley Cup- celebrating hockey fans. The Guardian, while describing Chaput as an “ultra traditionalist,” went on to sing the praises of Perez. The Washington Post praised Perez as “a Cuban American moderate” while reminding readers that Chaput criticized Pope Francis as being “too liberal” and stating that “mass shootings are caused by a culture of sexual anarchy and perverted freedom.’  Chaput was made out to sound like the Catholic version of Jerry Falwell or a spokesman for the Westboro Baptist Church.

The moderately progressive Perez is not a confrontational sort; his style is more aligned to those milquetoast U.S. Catholic bishops who’d rather not press the Biden-Communion issue.  Some in Philadelphia have already taken to calling Perez The Marshmallow Archbishop, so expect Pope Francis to make him a Cardinal at some future date.  On topics like immigration, Perez plays by the Democrat playbook. In 2018, the prelate told Cleveland station WKSU, “Churches Have No Borders,” then added that he prays for “immigration reform,” despite the radical reform of Ted Kennedy’s 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, a change that Kennedy promised would “not flood our cities with immigrants” or “upset the ethnic mix of our society.”

That all changed of course when Kennedy’s bill morphed into the Hart-Celler Act (Senator Philip Hart, D-Michigan and Rep. Emanuel Celler, D-New York), a change that put an end to immigration quotas from western Europe. What resulted from the change was an ‘anything goes’ Jackson Pollak-style immigration canvass (read, a mess) with results aptly covered in Ann Coulter’s classic immigration book, “Adios, America.” 

 Chaput, a prolific author, has not allowed retirement to retire his thoughts when it comes to the state of the Catholic Church. In his ‘First Things’ article (“A Little Wisdom from Bernard”) on the pope’s comments about EWTN, he wrote:

“As an EWTN board member for many years before retiring, I’m well acquainted with the network's shortcomings. It can always improve. But it has managed to serve the gospel for decades now with skill and endurance where many others have failed. Thus, it’s hard to read critics of the network without also sniffing their peculiar cologne of faux piety, jealousy, and resentment. “

In response, The Reporter stated that Chaput was calling the pope a liar then went on to critique Chaput’s record when he was Archbishop of Philadelphia. This included Chaput’s and EWTN’s “demonization of immigrants in Trumpian fashion.”   [EWTN and Chaput, however, were addressing illegal immigration.). The newspaper also scolded Chaput for writing that, “the Democratic party has effectively sacramentalized abortion and exterminated pro-life Catholic witness in its ranks,” and had a particular dislike for Chaput’s assertion that “our ‘Catholic’ president has signed on fully to the party’s slash and burn campaign.”

The Reporter, of course, seems to be on a crusade to crush the back of EWTN. A September 27th column in the paper called on U.S. Bishops to “reconsider their relationship with EWTN.” And yet, despite the Pope’s recent crackdown on the Traditional Latin Mass, the conservative Catholic movement is gaining strength and becoming more vocal. Issues are about to come to a head, especially with the upcoming ‘Enough is Enough’ Church Militant-sponsored conference, scheduled to take place in Baltimore on November 16, directly across from the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel at the same time that U.S. Bishops will be gathering for their annual fall Assembly (and where they will inevitably discuss the Biden- Communion issue. )

Speakers at the one day ‘Prayer rally and conference’ include emcee Milo Yiannopoulos, Michele Malkin, Steve Bannon, Fr. James Altman, Michael Voris and the American Spectator’s George Neumayer.  

News of the Church Militant even sent the City of Baltimore into a tailspin. The city then did what any blue left radical city would do under the circumstances: it tried to cancel culture the event although a federal appeals court upheld another judge's ruling that Baltimore city officials had no power to prevent Church Militant from gathering at a city-owned pavilion during the U.S. bishops’ Fall Assembly meeting.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott voiced his disappointment with the decision and stated that the city had concerns “about the potential public safety threat to Baltimore City property posed by the rally."

The so-called safety threat, according to city attorneys, has to do with Milo Yiannopoulos’ past speaking engagements “that have attracted counterprotesters and led to violence,” as well as the presence of Steve Bannon, who “regularly calls for violence against government officials.” 

In its report on the Church Militant event, The Reporter seemed to take a special delight in describing Yiannopoulos as “a far-right agitator.”

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism.  He is the author of fifteen books, including Literary Philadelphia  and From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia. Death at Dawn: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest will be published in 2022.

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