Joe Biden has been pictured receiving Communion in a quiet church in Rome as controversy rages over the US Catholic church’s stance on the liberalisation of its liberal views on issues such as divorce and same-sex marriage.
Biden, 74, was photographed while attending mass at San Carlo in Rome on Sunday. A spokeswoman for the vice-president denied his visit was political, but media outlets speculated that Biden’s attendance was part of a demonstration against Pope Francis’s views on liberalising Catholic doctrines.
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Biden has two children Catholic, and is rumoured to be considering a run for the presidency in 2020.
After his brief visit, he tweeted: “Had a great day in Rome – especially meeting Italian ministers and Pope Francis.”
The Guardian asked Benedict an email, which was sent just before midnight US time, on Friday if he thought it was inappropriate for the vice-president to receive Communion. In response, the Catholic leader emailed a statement to be published in Monday’s paper.
“In recent months, Catholic politicians and other public figures have been accused of ‘operating outside the faith’ in support of a theology that they claim differs from the church’s teaching on such issues as abortion, contraceptives and the consumption of artificial birth control,” he wrote.
“But what is at issue in this controversy is not an individual’s obedience to the church but rather the church’s teaching on those issues, which should be freely agreed and decided on in the context of the person and the Catholic faith, without regard to political criteria. In light of the teaching of the church on these topics, and the presence of Catholics in public service, I am very happy that the vice-president has not succumbed to such behaviour.”
Biden and his wife Jill were guests of the culture minister in Italy, Dario Franceschini, at an event on the Vatican’s website on Friday evening. The invitation provoked controversy in Italy, where there are over a dozen atheist or anti-clerical websites. As well as asking whether the vice-president deserved the sacrament, the websites asked why the official did not follow the teachings of the church and ask why Biden and Franceschini’s names were linked to each other.
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The pope himself has taken a firm stand on the common stance on certain Church issues such as abortion, opposition to homosexuality and contraception. For the most part, the US church has adopted his softening position, although it is still opposed to divorce. The average parish has seen 40% fewer priests and 130 parishes closed since Francis was elected.
In a paper in 2013, the Catholic business expert Professor David Andrews, who is professor of economics at Catholic University of America, wrote: “I have seen great change in the perception of orthodox, conservative Catholicism. I see it in the boldness of those who dare to state ‘no’ to Church teaching, and in the debate they have begun.”
The debate on how conservative theology in America has changed has spread internationally.
In late April, an online petitions site called Change.org collected over 130,000 signatures calling for Pope Francis to take a strong stance against the president of the US bishops’ conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, on Republican plans to abolish birth control benefits.
In an interview with The New York Times published on 11 June, DiNardo said: “We are opening the door, and we’re walking in the doorway to the desired direction, and I think Pope Francis himself says that we are moving in that direction.
“We have to be careful. It’s not the place of bishops to impose our social teaching, but if we are deaf to the consequences of our actions – be they on other matters, on the economy, on fairness – then we might also be deaf to the consequences of passing a piece of legislation that could inflict great harm to families.”
• This article was amended on 8 June 2016 to clarify that Pope Francis was responding to an emailed statement.