for newyorker.com, | October 27, 2021

Pope Francis and Joe Biden Will Meet in Rome but Not, Alas, in Glasgow

The Pontiff and the President have common goals on climate change—and similar problems at home.

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Pope Francis speaks at a meeting with religious leaders about climate change.
Francis’s decision to stay away from the Glasgow climate summit is one of the most confounding that he has made in his nearly nine years as Pope.Photograph by Alessandro Di Meo / Getty

At the Vatican last Wednesday, the general audience—a weekly ritual in which the Pope speaks and leads prayers for several thousand pilgrims and dignitaries—was spontaneously taken over by a ten-year-old boy in a sweatsuit and running shoes. The child, named Paolo, clambered onto the stage in the Audience Hall, where Pope Francis was seated with a cleric on either side. Francis smiled at him as a scriptural text was read aloud. Paolo pointed to the zucchetto, the Pope’s white skullcap, and sat in a chair that one of the clerics vacated for him. After a couple of minutes, he was given his own zucchetto, and left the stage, to applause. The episode, Francis later said, showed the kind of freedom commended in Scripture—the freedom to act “from the heart,” the way that children do.

On Friday, Francis will greet a very different guest: President Joe Biden, who will be in Rome for a summit of leaders of the G-20 nations—a highly unspontaneous exercise in international diplomacy. The audience will be the first meeting of the two since Biden’s election as President (though they spent time together when Biden was Vice-President), and it will be scrutinized both for its substance and its symbolism. Already, traditionalist Catholics are leery that it will be seen as evidence that Francis is siding with Biden in the controversy stirred up by the large contingent of U.S. bishops who insist that, because the President supports legal abortion, he should be barred from receiving Communion at Mass. But the Pope is an anomaly —a religious leader who is also a head of state—and holding audiences with other world leaders is part of the job: Francis had an audience with President Trump in 2017. He will meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, of India (who is also en route to Glasgow) prior to the G-20 summit. And, as the encounter with Paolo showed, a meeting with the Pope is as much about aura as about doctrine or policy.

Yet the meeting of Biden and Francis really ought to be significant. From Rome, Biden will go to Glasgow, Scotland, for COP26—the United Nations conference of heads of state convened with the purpose of furthering plans for collective action in response to the climate emergency. Francis, contrary to expectations (in September, he told an interviewer that “my speech is already being prepared”), will not attend but will instead send a delegation headed by the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. So the meeting in Rome will likely be the best chance for the President and the Pope to frame their shared goals for action on the matter that Biden, praising Francis’s encyclical on climate change, “Laudato Si’,” in 2015, echoed the Pontiff in calling “the single most consequential problem and issue facing humanity right now.”

Francis’s decision to stay away from Glasgow is one of the most confounding that he has made in his nearly nine years as Pope. As Western democracies emerge fitfully from the pandemic, there’s a leadership gap on climate in the hemisphere. Angela Merkel, who presided over German industry’s aggressive development of clean-energy technology, will soon be an emerita, and her successor has yet to be determined. Boris Johnson’s stated wish to make common cause with Europe on climate change runs against post-Brexit Britain’s determination to go its own way (by expanding oil drilling in the North Sea, for example), even as the nation grapples with yet another COVID surge. Environmentalists in France are vexed by Emmanuel Macron’s failure to follow through on his promise to “make our planet great again” through climate-friendly regulations. Italy is in multiparty disarray, and Brazil is convulsed by Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-vaccine antics and his dismantling of laws that keep agribusiness companies from destroying the Amazon rain forest. Francis might have stepped into that gap in Glasgow, employing his charisma and the papacy’s still considerable prestige; instead, he will be among two other notable expected no-shows: Xi Jinping, of China, and Vladimir Putin, of Russia.

The decision also runs contrary to the priorities of Francis’s pontificate. “Laudato Si’,” which runs to forty thousand words in English, is still his single most consequential statement. Endorsing “care for our common home,” the encyclical brought Catholicism’s insights to bear on an urgent problem, faced the insular Vatican outward, and credibly repositioned the scandal-ridden Church as a force for progress. Together in Glasgow, Biden and Francis, two forward-looking Catholics, could have presented an alliance between the secular and the sacred, and between government and civil society. It’s a missed opportunity, and an indicative one, because the climate crisis, in a sense, is analogous to the crises of leadership and solidarity that both men face.

In “Laudato Si’,” Francis presents the earth as a place of awe-inspiring interdependence between peoples and species, and the climate crisis as a convergence of many problems that demand specific solutions, requiring leadership and organization on a grand scale, through coöperation and collective action. Meanwhile, through a process that he calls “rapidification,” those problems are outpacing our institutions (governments, N.G.O.s, scientific networks), and calling forth a fierce and well-funded opposition to environmentalism, both from “countries that place their national interests above the global common good” and from companies, such as those that produce genetically modified crops. In a subsequent encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” from 2020, Francis extended the theme of interdependence, making it the basis for a religious vision of “solidarity” shaped by “shared responsibility in the whole human family,” with people working together across cultures and geographic borders.

He could have made the same points about the crisis of global Catholicism. In the Church, long-term problems are entwined, at once requiring and resisting immediate attention, and they can’t be solved in isolation or through papal authority alone. The role of women, for example, is bound up with questions of ordination and Church governance; abortion and personhood; marriage and family; gender identity; and the deep disparities in women’s roles around the world. And many Church leaders think that the Church shouldn’t even engage with such questions, beyond answering them the way it has for half a century: by declaring that men and women are “complementary,” and that social structures should reflect complementarity rather than equality. So the Pope, who is positioned for global leadership on the climate issue, represents a community sharply divided and vexed by internal crises.

That description could fit Biden’s predicament, too. This year, even as he has promoted far-reaching domestic policies and promised to restore America’s standing among allies repulsed by President Trump, it has often appeared that the leader of the free world isn’t leading his own country, or even his own party, so much as serving as a broker and a peacemaker among rival factions. He’ll go to Glasgow informed by last week’s grim reports from the U.S. national-security agencies on climate change as an emerging cause of international strife, and bearing a plan for the nation to reach net-zero carbon emissions for electricity by 2035. But he’ll be trailed by the fact that his ability to act decisively on climate is hobbled at home by climate-change-downplaying Republicans and a Democratic senator whose personal and political fortunes stem from his strategic alliance with big coal.

Just as members of Congress still need persuading on climate matters, so do the U.S. bishops: a new study undertaken by a group of scholars at Creighton University, a Jesuit school in Nebraska, found that of the more than twelve thousand opinion pieces written by bishops and published in church media from mid-2014 to mid-2019, less than one per cent made any reference to climate matters, even as Francis was attracting global attention to the issue. It would be practical, then, for Biden and Francis to make common cause for the climate in some dramatic way in Rome, as they might have done in Glasgow. But the climate crisis is just one item on the agenda for the audience—which the White House released last Thursday—along with the pandemic, care for the poor, and “fundamental human dignity.”

And the notion of Biden and Francis as a matched pair of genial, flexible elder statesmen breaks down when Francis’s view of the global economy is taken into account. On October 4th, the Pope hosted a gathering at the Vatican of several dozen leaders of the world’s religions, who made statements in anticipation of the COP26 conference; his is a lofty and generalized call for “openness to interdependence and sharing.” Then, on October 16th, in an address to groups of Catholic activists in Rome, Francis set out a series of prescriptions for post-pandemic civil society, which America, the Jesuit magazine, called the “9 commandments.” He asked, “in the name of God,” for “the great extractive industries” to “stop destroying forests, wetlands and mountains,” for all weapons manufacturers to cease production, for the big banks to cancel debts incurred by poor countries, for “the technology giants to stop exploiting human weakness,” and so on. Were these appeals his spontaneous, heartfelt condemnation of economies that are returning to business as usual in wealthy nations, or a more specific message pointed toward the conferees in Glasgow? The “9 commandments” may be either, or both, but they belong to the realm of prophecy more than policy. They also show Francis to be well to the left of Biden—and every other leader who will be in Glasgow—in his belief that the climate crisis is the inevitable result of a global social order that is “truly suicidal—and, if I may press the point a little, ecocidal and genocidal.”

If not now, when? Activists warn that it will soon be too late for summits such as COP26 to effect meaningful change. The U.S.’s climate envoy, John Kerry, has called the Glasgow conference a “last best chance” for climate reform, but it’s a chance already diminished. On Friday, the President and the Pope will stand shoulder to shoulder at the Vatican, as world leaders and Catholic contemporaries. Come Sunday, Biden will go to Mass, presumably, and then set off for Glasgow, while Francis—who has so much to say on the climate issue, and such power to persuade—will begin a quiet week in Rome.


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