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‘God Love You’ — Biden Visits Pope Francis Amid Political Controversy Over Communion




Throughout President Biden’s life, his religion has been a refuge. He fingers a rosary during moments of stress and often attends Mass at the church in Delaware where his son Beau is buried.

But as Biden and Pope Francis prepared for a tete-a-tete Friday at the Vatican — the president’s first stop while traveling in Europe for two international summits — both the flocks they lead, the American people and the Roman Catholic Church, are beset by divisions and contradictions that at times seem irreconcilable.

For the record:

4:56 a.m. Oct. 29, 2021A previous version of this story misstated the day of President Biden and Pope Francis’ meeting. The two leaders met Friday, not Thursday.

“They preside over fractured communities,” said Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor at Villanova University who wrote a book about Biden and Catholicism. “They face situations with many similarities.”

The two leaders met for 90 minutes early Friday afternoon, according to the White House, which was longer than expected. Later in the day, Biden said they prayed together for peace and that Francis blessed his rosary.

The president said the conversation focused on the “moral responsibility” of dealing with climate change — the topic of an upcoming summit in Glasgow, Scotland. The president added that they did not discuss abortion. Biden supports abortion rights, a contradiction of Catholic doctrine that is common among Democrats.

“We just talked about the fact that he was happy I was a good Catholic,” Biden said, adding that Francis told him he should continue to receive Communion.

It was a significant statement from the pope on an issue that has stirred political and spiritual controversy over the relationship between politicians who support abortion rights and the church.

Conservative Catholic bishops in the United States are arguing that political leaders who support abortion rights should not receive Communion — the ritual where a priest consecrates bread and wine and then shares it with believers — and the issue is slated for debate during an upcoming episcopal meeting in Baltimore. Because the proposal gained steam after Biden’s election, it’s been viewed as a rebuke of the president.

The controversy reflects an internal debate over whether the Catholic Church should broaden its appeal or adhere more strictly to its core tenets. George Weigel, a distinguished senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, said some people “claim to be Catholic and yet want to turn Catholicism into a version of liberal Protestantism.”

“What the bishops are discussing is whether Catholic political leaders who are not in full communion with the church because they act in ways that contradict settled Catholic teaching should have the integrity not to present themselves for Holy Communion,” he said.

The Vatican, however, has been wary of a debate that mixes politics and one of the church’s holiest rituals. Francis said last month that he has “never refused the Eucharist to anyone.” Since becoming pope eight years ago, he has sought to distance himself from divisive topics like same-sex marriage while focusing on more ecumenical issues.

John K. White, professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, said the pope’s meeting with Biden “sends a message to the American bishops that denying Communion is not something that he approves of.”

The news media were not allowed into the meeting or to catch a glimpse of Biden and Francis together. The Vatican released video of part of an encounter that appeared affectionate, even chummy. At one point, Biden handed the pope a commemorative coin. “The tradition is, and I’m only kidding about this, the next time I see you and you don’t have it, you have to buy the drinks,” said Biden, who joked that he’s probably the only Irishman that Francis has ever met that doesn’t drink.

The president bid farewell to the pope with a phrase that has become something of a trademark for him — “God love you.”

Biden and Francis have met several times before, starting with a brief encounter when Biden, then vice president, attended Francis’ papal inauguration in 2013.

Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden leaves a church in Wilmington, Del., last year after attending a confirmation Mass for his granddaughter.

(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Two years later, Biden welcomed Francis to the U.S. and brought his family to a private meeting with him shortly after Beau died.

“I wish every grieving parent, brother or sister, mother or father would have had the benefit of his words, his prayers, his presence,” Biden said the following year during a visit to the Vatican, where he met Francis again.

Biden is only the second Catholic president after John F. Kennedy, who was elected in 1960. At that time, the church was still viewed with suspicion by some Americans, and Kennedy assured voters that he believed in the separation of church and state — another way of saying that he would follow the Constitution, not the pope, while in office.

Now, Catholics are represented in the highest levels of American public life. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, is Catholic, as is one of her predecessors, John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio. The majority of Supreme Court justices are Catholic.

Biden keeps a photo of him with Francis in the Oval Office among an assortment of family photos.

The president attends Mass once a week, even when traveling. He made a point of visiting a church during a 2001 trip to China while he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“I’m going to be there on a Sunday — can I go to church somewhere?” Biden said, according to Frank Januzzi, one of the future president’s staff members at the time.

Although there were large Catholic churches in Beijing where Biden could have attended Mass, he ultimately visited what Januzzi described as a “tiny, hole-in-the-wall” parish in a village outside the Chinese capital. Biden took Communion from an elderly priest there.


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“This was an opportunity to make a statement about the importance of freedom of religion and demonstrate his own faith as well,” said Januzzi, who now leads the Mansfield Foundation, an organization dedicated to fostering U.S.-Asia relations.

White, the university professor, recalled attending Mass at a church in Bethesda, Md., in 2015 when Biden and his wife slipped in. It was unexpected, because it was not Biden’s usual parish, but Beau was hospitalized nearby with brain cancer and was near death.

Even from a distance, White said, “You could tell they were in distress.” They received Communion and exchanged the sign of peace — when parishioners shake hands and exchange greetings — and left.

“It wasn’t like he was there to shake a lot of hands,” said White, who later worked on Catholic outreach for Biden’s 2020 campaign. “It wasn’t about that at all.”

Beau’s death was just one of the tragedies that have shaped Biden’s life. In 1972, his first wife and daughter were killed in a car accident shortly after he was first elected to the Senate.

“When people have tragedy, sometimes their faith goes away, or is forged in steel,” White said. “All the tragedies that have beset Biden have reinforced his faith and who he is.”

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Why Mexico’s President Is Promoting a Recall Against Himself




Standing before hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters in downtown Mexico City’s central square, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saved his most striking comment for the end of his speech.

He urged the Mexicans packed into the Zócalo to participate in an April referendum to decide whether they want to boot him from office more than two years early.

“None of, ‘They chose me for six years and I can do whatever I want,’” López Obrador said at the rally Wednesday to mark his midterm. “If one who governs is not up to the task and obeying the people, revoke their mandate and out!”

The president, 68, likely believes he has nothing to worry about.

Recent polls show that about two-thirds of the public approve of his performance since taking office in 2018 on a platform that promised a radical transformation of Mexican society to combat corruption and inequality and to roll back free-market economic policies.

Families and marching bands making their way to the Zócalo passed vendors hawking gray-haired López Obrador dolls and posters with the hashtag #QueSigaAMLO, or “may AMLO continue,” referring to the president by his initials. Many said they view a referendum, authorized by a 2019 constitutional reform spearheaded by the president, as proof of his honest character when compared to decades of presidents accused of corruption.

“AMLO is the first president that dares to put himself to the test before the people,” said Debanhi Andrea Garcia, 22, who drove 14 hours from the state of Nuevo León with her boyfriend. “Because he’s like that, we support him.”

Supporters of López Obrador hold banners in support of the president at Mexico City’s Zócalo.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

Mexicans have until Dec. 25 to sign a petition supporting the referendum, which can move forward only with the signatures of at least 3% of eligible voters, among other caveats.

So far, the initiative has received more than 703,000 signatures from Mexicans who have valid voting credentials, or 25% of the required total, according to the National Electoral Institute, an independent agency overseeing the process. (That tally includes signatures that will be discarded because they are duplicates or have other irregularities.)

Officially called the “revocation of mandate,” the measure follows other efforts by the president to increase citizen engagement in public policy. López Obrador has also backed referendums to decide whether former Mexican presidents should be prosecuted for alleged crimes, on the construction of a new airport near Mexico City and on the development of a tourism train line that would run through the Yucatan Peninsula.

“He does conceive his power as being a function of people reiterating their support actively,” said Francisco González, a professor of Latin American politics at Johns Hopkins University. “He wants it officially confirmed to give him that comfort of being the popular leader who is doing the right thing for Mexico.”

Since taking office, López Obrador has also expanded social welfare programs while introducing sharp austerity measures. He has halted renewable energy projects, promoted a constitutional reform to increase the country’s control of the electricity market, and given more power to the military — putting it in charge of projects such as the tourism train.

President López Obrador gives an address to mark the midpoint of his term.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

His critics say that he hasn’t done enough to reduce high levels of homicides, including many killings of women and attacks against journalists and public officials. Dozens of candidates across the country were assassinated ahead of last spring’s midterm elections for governorships and legislative and mayoral seats.

Critics also are concerned about López Obrador’s attacks against democratic agencies that could check his power, notably the National Electoral Institute. He has repeatedly disparaged the independent agency, which last May sanctioned him for making statements in at least 29 news conferences that it said could be considered government propaganda that could influence the midterm elections. In Mexico, such statements by public officials are generally barred during the election season.

But the president’s vision of transformational change continues to resonate among many voters who view him as a paternal figure. López Obrador is in constant dialogue with his electorate, holding press conferences every morning that last hours.

“The figure he has constructed of an honest man, an honorable man, an incorruptible man — that helps him in a society that is used to seeing terribly corrupt politicians,” said René Torres-Ruiz, a political scientist at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

Even if enough signatures are gathered, hurdles to a referendum remain. The National Electoral Institute’s members have said that the agency doesn’t have the budget to carry out the vote and at least 40% of eligible voters must participate for the referendum to be binding. The referendum on former presidents last August fell far short of the 40% voting figure.

Ariadna Gomez, left, and another volunteer collect signatures for a referendum on whether Mexico’s president should continue.

(Leila Miller / Los Angeles Times)

Stephanie Brewer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America, said that winning a referendum would increase López Obrador’s perception that he could move forward freely with his agenda.

“What he wants is to come out of the vote, supposing there is one, politically strengthened with this renewed and amplified popular mandate,” she said.

Opposition parties have accused the president’s supporters of twisting the stated purpose of the referendum into a tool to promote López Obrador’s agenda. The 2019 reform called for a referendum to “revoke” a president’s mandate rather than “ratify” it and a complaint before the National Electoral Institute by the National Action Party referenced how volunteers have registered voters next to posters that advertise the referendum as a means of promoting the president rather than recalling him from office.

Luis Cházaro, a congressman from the Party of the Democratic Revolution, told The Times that the referendum “has been transformed into a promotional tool for the party.” He does not plan to participate.

In Coyoacán, a cobblestoned neighborhood in Mexico City known for Frida Kahlo’s home, volunteers last Sunday gathered signatures at a plaza in front of posters of the president that said “may AMLO continue.”

Ariana Garcia, a 24-year-old volunteer, said she uses the term “ratification” for people she senses like the president and “revocation” for those she thinks oppose him.

“People tell you, ‘But I don’t want my president to leave,’ so we tell them, ‘OK, then in this case you can ratify your support for the president,’” she said.

A supporter of López Obrador listens to his speech at a rally to commemorate the president’s midterm.

(Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)

Roberto Garcia, a systems engineer in Mexico City, said that he would vote against the president, uncomfortable that the federal government recently issued a decree that requires federal agencies to automatically approve infrastructure projects that are deemed to be of interest to the public or national security. He also sees the referendum as “a type of manipulation,” suspicious of why the president has contradicted the National Electoral Institute, saying it has enough funding to hold a vote he himself has fought for.

María de los Angeles Resendiz, a grandmother of 10 from the state of Mexico, will support López Obrador without hesitation.

Resendiz, 62, watches the president’s 7 a.m. news conferences each day with her husband while preparing breakfast and washing dishes. If she needs to skip one, she’ll track it down later on YouTube. She also listens to summaries in case she’s missed something.

Before López Obrador took power, Resendiz tried to stay as far away from politics as she could. She became disillusioned when she was a little girl after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which soldiers killed as many as 300 people at a student protest in Mexico City.

She called López Obrador a “simple” man who has won her confidence with his anti-corruption platform. She eagerly described how his government has set money aside for youth job training and expanded welfare payments to the elderly.

“He’s given us back our dignity,” she said. “I am proud to say that I am Mexican and that he is my president.”

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Op-Ed: the U.S. Shouldn’t Ignore Mexico’s Ongoing Human Rights Catastrophe



On Dec. 1, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reached the halfway point of his six-year term. Since his election in 2018, López Obrador has not only failed to improve the country’s disastrous human rights record, he has worked to undo many of the hard-fought gains in transparency and the rule of law that rights groups, activists and campaigners have achieved since the end of one-party rule in Mexico in 2000.

The United States has been noticeably silent regarding the Mexican president’s accelerating attacks on democracy. President Biden has instead chosen to focus on enlisting López Obrador to prevent migrants from reaching the U.S. border.

López Obrador, a prominent anti-establishment figure in Mexican politics for decades, is the kind of populist leader that has become increasingly common in Latin America. He was democratically elected in a landslide on a promise to “transform” Mexico by taking back control of the country from the elites whose policies he blamed for economic inequality, social breakdown and growing violence.

López Obrador inherited a human rights catastrophe. When he came to office in 2018, 12 years of a military-led drug war had led to horrific abuses. Homicides hit staggering numbers. Thousands of people disappeared every year. But he has not addressed these problems. Soldiers continue to kill civilians. Homicides remain at historically high rates. And according to the government’s figures, more than 25,000 people have gone missing on his watch.

Even so, López Obrador has remained immensely popular with his base. He appears to believe that his continued popular support gives him the moral authority to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands and to attempt to control every part of the state to bring about his promised transformation.

He labels anyone who criticizes him or stands in his way as a “neoliberal” or “conservative,” nebulous groups of supposed adversaries whom he describes as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Leveling this charge allows him to avoid responding to genuine concerns raised by journalists who question him, women’s rights campaigners upset at his lack of action on gender-based violence, Indigenous communities who oppose his megaprojects, environmentalists who disagree with his coal and oil-focused energy policy, and press freedom campaigners concerned about his government’s harassment of journalists, among others.

He has eliminated or proposed eliminating many government agencies not under his direct control, including the independent energy and telecommunications regulators, funds for protecting journalists and responding to climate change and natural disasters, the independent transparency agency and the independent electoral authority. He recently decreed that his government’s construction and infrastructure projects would be automatically granted permits without any review and that as matters of “national security,” would be exempted from transparency rules.

He has also gone after the judicial system, which has delayed or blocked a number of his projects and proposals as abusive or unconstitutional. His efforts to intimidate the judiciary have grown brazen. López Obrador has publicly singled out those whose rulings he dislikes and called for a judge who ruled against him to be investigated.

In April, his coalition in Congress passed a law — since overturned — to extend the term of the Supreme Court chief justice who has ruled in favor of the president. And in August, López Obrador held a referendum on whether the government should put five previous presidents on trial for alleged crimes such as “neoliberalism” and the “privatization of public goods.”

The U.S. policy of ignoring López Obrador’s attacks on the rule of law came into stark relief in June, when Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico and met with him. At the end of the trip, a journalist asked the vice president if the United States was concerned about López Obrador’s hostile attitude toward the media and civil society.

Harris initially responded that she had urged the Mexican president to respect the independence of the judicial system, the press and civil society. However, hours later, her spokesperson issued a correction to the Spanish wire service EFE, saying the vice president had been confused; she and the Mexican president had only discussed immigration and the economy, nothing else.

López Obrador will be in office for another three years. His coalition still controls both houses of Congress and he has made it clear that he is willing to amend the constitution if necessary to remove obstacles to achieving his goals. Unless the circumstances change, there are no signs he intends to alter his course.

José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch. Tyler Mattiace is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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Photos: As Roe Vs. Wade Challenged, Demonstrators Gather Outside Supreme Court



Juanito Estevez, of Freeport, N.Y., holds a cross as he and abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

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