- Associated Press - Monday, June 28, 2021

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis on Monday voiced affection for the American people as he met at length with the U.S. secretary of state, the Vatican said, without indicating whether the two discussed the sharp divide among U.S. bishops over giving Communion to politicians supporting abortion rights like President Biden.

The pontiff accorded Secretary of State Antony Blinken a substantial chunk of time, especially in view of a government official who isn’t a national leader.

The audience in the Apostolic Palace “played out in a cordial atmosphere,” a Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said. “It lasted about 40 minutes, and it was for the pope, the occasion to recall his 2015 visit and to express his affection and his attention to the people of the United States of America.”

Bruni was referring to the pontiff’s U.S. pilgrimage, which included a meeting at the White House with then-President Barack Obama. Since then U.S. church hierarchy has been increasingly more polarized about U.S. politics and politicians.

Conservative U.S. bishops have been clamoring for clear directives against giving Communion to U.S. political figures who are Catholics and support women’s right to abortion. Vatican teaching forbids abortion as a grave sin. This campaign has put the spotlight on Biden, a Catholic who has said while he personally opposes abortion he supports abortion rights.

Francis hasn’t weighed in publicly on the latest debate within the heavily polarized U.S. Conference of Bishops, although in 2015 he issued a letter expressing compassion to women over the agonizing choice they face over abortion.

Earlier at the Vatican, Blinken on Monday received VIP treatment, getting a private tour of the Sistine Chapel before he sat down for closed-door talks with Pope Francis.

Blinken was the first high-level official of Biden’s administration to have a private audience with the pontiff.

Last year, when Blinken‘s predecessor, Mike Pompeo, came to the Vatican, he wasn’t granted private time with Francis. At the time, Vatican officials said that was because the Holy See didn’t want to give any impression of favoritism only weeks before the U.S. presidential election that brought Biden to power.

But China was a thorny issue between both sides. Pompeo had blasted the Vatican for what he said was a lessening of its moral authority by signing an accord with Beijing over the nominations of Chinese bishops. Pompeo called on the Holy See to take a tougher stand against Chinese restrictions on religious freedom.

Biden, for his part, has criticized China for forced labor practices. Francis has championed human rights in many countries to draw attention to peoples’ suffering.

But as the bishops’ agreement indicates, Francis is also intent on improving conditions for the Catholic church in China. But some in his own church have expressed dismay that Francis hasn’t taken a harder stance on Chinese authorities’ longtime discrimination against Catholics loyal to the pontiff.

On Monday, Blinken also met with the Holy See’s No. 2, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, and with Archbishop Paul Gallagher, its foreign minister.

Visitors to the Sistine Chapel, with its ceiling frescoed by Michelangelo and a 30-by-60-foot wall painting, “Last Judgment,” by the Renaissance master almost always emerge wowed. Blinken appeared to be no exception after his short, guided tour.

“Mr. Secretary, pretty impressive?” a reporter asked. Blinken nodded and gestured around the cavernous space.

Blinken is visiting Rome before flying to southern Italy for Tuesday’s Group of 20 meeting of foreign ministers, which is focused on improving collaboration among nations on climate change, health issues and development.


AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

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