Biden and Francis,
or to Caesar What is Caesar’s

Rafael Domingo

Pope Francis and President Joe Biden at the Vatican, October 29, 2021. Wikimedia (PD-US).

The meeting between President Joe Biden and Pope Francis at the Vatican has left us with memorable photographs and an important moment in history. What remains with me most vividly is the fact of the meeting itself, stripped of ceremony and diplomatic paraphernalia. The visit simply took place. Period. The incarnation of earthly power, in the form of the president of the United States, conversed privately for 75 minutes with the incarnation of spiritual authority in the West, in the form of the pope — and this has a very deep political and spiritual meaning.

The encounter meant, first of all, that earthly power, no matter how large an army it has and how much might and influence it deploys, is not absolute. In the 21st century, the political potestas continues to need the spiritual auctoritas as the land needs the rain, because the spiritual dimension of human existence plays a determining role in the lives of people and peoples.

Second, the visit has shown us that, in the so-called era of secularization, political activity, no matter how secular, will never eradicate the relevance of religious messages or marginalize the spiritual leaders of the world. The meeting has been a severe blow to the most intransigent secularism, which seeks to stifle any societal openness to transcendence.

The meeting has been a severe blow to the most intransigent secularism, which seeks to stifle any societal openness to transcendence.

This visit has also reminded us of Jesus Christ’s advice to give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s (Matthew 22:21). This rule is of inestimable value for both the smooth functioning of politics and the development of peoples. It is a pity that we too often stray from it or do not understand it in all its depth.

It seems that both Biden and Francis, perhaps unintentionally, have updated this advice with their encounter. 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 as depending on mutual collaboration rather than exclusion, since both are intended to serve the flourishing of individual persons and peoples. Just as the human person cannot be divided (the bodily from the emotional or spiritual), neither can the human community be divided by an impenetrable wall separating the political from the religious.

God is everywhere: both in churches and in parliaments. God cares little about material limits. The need to differentiate the political from the spiritual dimension of society does not mean that spirituality can be separated from politics. Caesar is also the son of God. And, conversely, the spiritual leader lives in the world of Caesar. In fact, Biden professes to be a practicing Catholic, and he certainly is, even if he does not endorse Catholic teaching on such a central issue as abortion.

God is everywhere: both in churches and in parliaments.

On the other hand, the pope, with this visit by Biden, has recognized the existence of a civil power, a Caesar, who deserves respect and support, even when some of the policies of his administration violate the church’s teaching and dignity — that is, do not respect what must be given to God. On multiple occasions, the pope has defended the value of human life beginning at conception. Surely, we can imagine, the two men discussed this controversial issue in their private audience, but anything resembling a submission of political power to spiritual authority has been rightly avoided in the media. This would have meant the death of the political life of American Catholics, who could easily be viewed as being governed from Rome, and not from Washington. Catholic politicians who defend life do so freely, not because the Vatican tells them to.

The pope has shown once again that he is a true pontiff, a builder of bridges, who cooperates with and helps all the rulers of the world in their efforts to achieve the common good for their peoples. The pope seems to have earned the full trust of Biden, who, as president of the United States, sees in the pontiff a spiritual leader who defends the poor and persecuted, who fights the pandemic by demanding that vaccines be donated to the most important countries, who seeks to protect the planet from environmental crisis, and who is attentive to equitable development for all people after the economic crisis.

This visit, for me, is a clear example of the necessary harmony that must exist between spiritual authority and political power in the age of secularization.♦

Rafael Domingo is Spruill family Professor of Law and religion at Emory University and Alvaro d’Ors Professor of Law at the University of Navarra

Recommended Citation

Domingo, Rafael. “Biden and Francis, or to Caesar What is Caesar’s.” Canopy Forum, November 17, 2021.