By Jeff Mason and Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden said on Friday that Pope Francis told him he was a "good Catholic" who can receive communion, widening a gulf between Francis and conservative U.S. bishops who want to deny it because of Biden's support for abortion rights.
Biden and the pope held an unusually long 1 hour and 15 minute meeting at the Vatican as a debate raged back in the United States about the divisive issue.
Asked if the topic of abortion came up, Biden said: "No it didn't. It came up -- we just talked about the fact he was happy that I was a good Catholic and I should keep receiving communion," Biden told reporters.
The president, who goes to weekly Mass regularly and keeps a picture of the pope behind his desk in the Oval Office, has said he is personally opposed to abortion but cannot impose his views as an elected leader.
In June, a divided conference of U.S. Roman Catholic bishops voted to draft https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-bishops-vote-draft-communion-statement-that-may-rebuke-biden-abortion-views-2021-06-18 a statement on communion that some bishops say should specifically admonish Catholic politicians, including Biden. They take up the issue again next month.
But the pope's comments to Biden, who disclosed them at the start of a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, may make it difficult for the bishops to follow through on their plans.
Asked if he and the pope discussed the U.S. bishops, Biden said "that's a private conversation."
Biden's most ardent critics in the U.S. Church hierarchy doubled down ahead of the visit.
"Dear Pope Francis, you have boldly stated that abortion is 'murder'. Please challenge President Biden on this critical issue. His persistent support of abortion is an embarrassment for the Church and a scandal to the world," Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, said on Twitter before the meeting.
After the meeting, Tobin tweeted: "I fear that the Church has lost its prophetic voice. Where are the John the Baptists who will confront the Herods of our day?", apparently comparing Biden to King Herod, who beheaded the preacher John for calling out the king's sins.
Last month, the pope told reporters that abortion is "murder" https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/pope-says-abortion-is-murder-us-bishops-should-not-be-political-2021-09-15 but appeared to criticise U.S. Catholic bishops for dealing with the issue in a political rather than a pastoral way.
"Communion is not a prize for the perfect. ... Communion is a gift, the presence of Jesus and his Church," the pope said, adding that bishops should use "compassion and tenderness" with Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.
Since his election in 2013 as the first Latin American pope, Francis has said that while the Church should oppose abortion, the issue should not become an all-consuming battle in culture wars that detracts attention from matters such as immigration and poverty.
Biden's meeting with the pope came three days before the U.S. Supreme Court https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-supreme-court-hear-challenge-texas-abortion-ban-2021-10-22 hears the first of two major cases this year challenging a series of state laws backed by Biden's rival Republicans limiting abortion rights. Abortion opponents hope the court will overturn the landmark 1973 Roe vs Wade decision that legalised the procedure nationwide.
Both the White House and Vatican statements made no reference to the abortion issue.
EXCEPTIONALLY LONG MEETING
The White House said Biden thanked the pope for "his advocacy for the world’s poor and those suffering from hunger, conflict, and persecution". Biden also praised the pope's "leadership in fighting the climate crisis, as well as his advocacy to ensure the pandemic ends for everyone through vaccine sharing and an equitable global economic recovery".
The Vatican said the two discussed "care of the planet", health care, the pandemic, refugees, migrants, and "the protection of human rights, including freedom of religion and conscience".
The Vatican said the private meeting lasted one hour and 15 minutes and then about another 15 minutes were spent for picture taking and the exchange of gifts in the presence of other members of the delegation, such as Biden's wife, Jill.
A meeting between the pope and former President Donald Trump in 2017 lasted about 30 minutes and one with Barrack Obama in 2014 lasted about 50 minutes.
Biden gave the pope a coin sometimes awarded to soldiers and leaders and told him: "You are the most significant warrior for peace I've ever met."
A senior U.S. administration official said the two men discussed climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic at length.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Philip Pullella; Editing by Nick Macfie, Toby Chopra, Mark Potter and Daniel Wallis)