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Biden and Francis, or to Caesar what is Caesar's.


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CNN English

Rafael Domingo Oslé

Director of the Chair Álvaro d'Ors del Institute for Culture and Society

The meeting between Joe Biden and Pope Francis at the Vatican has left memorable photographs and important moments for history. I am left with the fact itself, naked and without diplomatic paraphernalia, that the visit simply took place. Period. That the incarnation of earthly power, also called the president of the United States, converses, in private and for 75 minutes, with the incarnation of spiritual authority in the West, also called the pope, has a very deep political and spiritual meaning.

The meeting signified, in the first place, that earthly power, no matter how much army it has at its disposal and how much force and influence it deploys, is not absolute. In plenary session of the Executive Council 21st century, the political potestas still needs the spiritual auctoritas, as the earth needs the rain, since the spiritual dimension of the human being plays a determining role in the life of individuals and peoples.

Secondly, the visit has shown us that, in the so-called era of secularization, political activity, however secular or secularist it may be, and however secular or very secular it may become, will never eradicate the relevance of the religious message, nor corner the spiritual leaders of the world. The meeting has undoubtedly dealt a hard blow to the most intransigent secularism, which seeks to suffocate any opening of society to transcendence.

What do Biden and the pope have in common as leaders?

This visit has also reminded us of the committee of Jesus Christ to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's (Matthew 22:21). This rule is of inestimable value for the proper conduct of politics and the development of peoples. It is a pity that we so often depart from it or fail to understand it in all its depth.

It seems that both Biden and Francis, perhaps unintentionally, have updated this committee to perfection with their meeting. The photographs of the two leaders in serene and constructive conversation teach us that the relationship between spiritual authority and political power is better understood from mutual partnership than from exclusion, since both instances must serve the flourishing of human beings and peoples. Just as a human being cannot be divided (the corporal from the emotional, for example), neither can the political community be divided by creating an impenetrable wall of separation between the political and the religious.

God is everywhere: in churches as well as in parliaments. He knows little of material limits. The need to differentiate the political dimension from the spiritual does not mean that spirituality can be separated from politics. Caesar is also a son of God. And vice versa: the spiritual leader lives in Caesar's world. In fact, Biden professes to be a practicing Catholic, and he certainly is, even if he does not participate in Christian morality on such central issues as abortion.

On the other hand, the Pope, with this visit of Biden, has recognized the existence of a civil power, of a Caesar, who deserves all respect and support, even when some of the policies of his administration go against Christian morality and human dignity, that is to say, do not respect that which is to be given to God. The Pope has defended the value of human life from conception on many occasions. Certainly, this controversial issue was addressed in the private audience, but he has rightly avoided staging anything resembling a political subjugation of political power to spiritual authority in the media. This would have spelled the death of political life for American Catholics, who could easily be accused of being governed from Rome rather than Washington. Catholic politicians who defend life do so freely, not because they are told to do so by the Vatican.

The Pope has shown once again that he is a true pontiff, a bridge-builder, who joins forces, cooperates, financial aid as much as he can with all the world's leaders in their efforts to achieve the common good of all peoples. The Pope seems to have won the full confidence of Biden, who, as President of the United States, sees in the Pontiff a spiritual leader who defends the poor and persecuted, who fights against pandemics by demanding that vaccines be donated to the neediest countries, who protects the planet in the face of the environmental crisis and who is attentive to the equitable development of peoples in the aftermath of the economic crisis.

This visit, for me, is a clear example of the necessary harmony that must exist between spiritual authority and political power, not as an artificial marriage of convenience, the fruit of conflicting political interests, but of a much deeper spiritual union that, precisely for this reason, knows how to separate functions and delimit spaces.