Today's mystery: Why did the Vatican cancel their live Biden-Francis coverage?

Alberto Pizzoli/Pool Photo via AP

I’m genuinely curious about this sudden change by the Holy See. It has nothing to do with Joe Biden’s delayed start to his G-20 trip, as the meeting between Biden and Pope Frances comes later — and the Vatican still plans to broadcast Biden’s arrival live. So why not the greeting, especially since it was initially planned?

The Vatican on Thursday abruptly canceled the planned live broadcast of U.S. President Joe Biden meeting Pope Francis, the latest restriction to media coverage of the Holy See.

The Vatican press office provided no explanation for why the live broadcast of Biden’s visit had been trimmed to cover just the arrival of the president’s motorcade in the courtyard of the Apostolic Palace, where a Vatican monsignor will greet him.

Cancelled was any live coverage of Biden actually greeting Francis in the palace Throne Room, as well as the live footage of the two men sitting down to begin their private talks in Francis’ library, at which time the cameras normally would have stopped running.

The Associated Press wonders too. They were given no explanation, and these live broadcasts give them the only access they have with the restrictions on media otherwise in the Age of COVID:

The Vatican has provided live television coverage for the visits of major heads of state for years and had scheduled such coverage Friday for Biden and before him, for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is also in Rome for a Group of 20 meeting this weekend.

Live broadcasts are particularly important because the Vatican hasn’t allowed independent photographers and journalists into papal audiences since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Vatican has continued to cite the pandemic as a reason to deny external media access to the beginnings and ends of papal audiences with visiting leaders, even though they are allowed into other papal events.

The AP and other media outlets have lodged protests over the change, which thus far has gone unexplained. They speculatively tie the issue to Biden’s support for abortion and the upcoming US Conference of Catholic Bishop’s fall convention dealing with pro-abortion Catholic politicians, but Francis has discouraged the targeting of specific politicians by bishops. Furthermore, Biden’s support for abortion on demand has been well known at the Vatican at least since the presidential election cycle. If that was the issue, the Vatican wouldn’t have scheduled live coverage of the papal audience in the first place.

Among those most bitterly disappointed is the New York Times, which envisioned this live meet-and-greet as an in your face moment to the USCCB. This headline and sub-head revealed their narrative, at least until the cancelation:

Meeting Between Francis and Biden Will Highlight Their Rift With American Bishops

The pope and president, who meet at the Vatican on Friday, are the common targets of conservative American bishops seeking to undercut them.

The news report itself undercuts the narrative, although readers have to wade through the NYT’s preferred context to find out that it’s nonsense:

Now Mr. Biden, a Catholic who rarely misses Sunday Mass, arrives at a moment when the political polarization in America has seeped deeply into its Catholic church. The president and pope, who share common ground on many issues, have become common targets of powerful conservative American bishops seeking to undercut them.

The most hostile among them, appointed by Francis’ conservative predecessors, have either ignored or resisted the pope’s efforts to reorient the priorities of the church toward inclusion and social justice, and away from culture war issues like abortion and L.G.B.T.Q. rights.

They have amplified their critiques of both men through a conservative Catholic media constellation that is Trump-friendly. Despite a clear warning from the Vatican, they have pursued an effort to deny holy communion to Roman Catholic politicians supportive of abortion rights — including Mr. Biden.

Even from Rome, the enmity is hard to miss.

But …

Vatican officials and experts said they doubted that the antagonism of American bishops would come up in the private audience between Francis and Mr. Biden, and that they would instead talk about issues like addressing climate change, caring for the poor and ending the pandemic. Francis is likely to press the president to ramp up coronavirus vaccine distribution to the developing world, and he rarely misses the chance to speak out against arms dealing and the consequences of war.

Yet factions left and right will be studying the meeting for any clue that the pope is providing political cover to the first Catholic American president since John F. Kennedy against the conservative culture warriors in their church.

American media outlets loooove to assume that popes are nothing more than American politicians operating from a remote location. Or at least they love to craft their narratives around that proposition, and this is a rather amusing example of that craft. Francis has as much interest in “providing political cover” to Joe Biden as it does in providing it to Nancy Pelosi, Paul Ryan, Newt Gingrich, or any other politician, which is to say none at all. That may be especially true with Biden, whose troubles at the moment belong entirely to his own incompetence. Pope Francis has his own agenda and his own concerns, none of which involve shilling for US presidents of any stripe.

Still, the cancelation at the last moment had to have some purpose. It’s possible that the Vatican and its Congregation for the Defense of Faith wants to work out some sort of agreement with the USCCB on their upcoming instruction on access to the Eucharist, and decided that ditching the live-TV embrace of a pro-abortion president was a reasonable concession. No one expects Francis to snub Biden entirely, not even the most conservative members of the USCCB, but dialing down the diplomatic enthusiasm might help smooth the dialogue.

Whatever the reason, Biden and his team wanted this live coverage to enhance his standing at home, which has taken a beating across the board and not just with Catholics. They’re pledging to work on getting the Vatican to reverse the reversal, but one suspects that they are as much in the dark on this change as the AP.