By Philip Pullella and Humeyra Pamuk
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday in the wake of a decision by American Catholic bishops that could lead them to deny communion to President Joe Biden.
But it was not clear if the topic came up in talks at the Vatican as Blinken became the highest-ranking U.S. administration official to visit since Biden’s inauguration in January.
He held 40 minutes of private talks with the pope in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace after a separate meeting with Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister.
The visit follows a conference at which U.S. Roman Catholic bishops voted to draft a statement on Communion that may admonish Catholic politicians, including Biden, who support a woman’s right to abortion despite opposing the practice personally..
The bishops decided to move forward with the document, mostly disregarding a Vatican warning that it would be highly divisive.
The topic did not appear in statements by State Department spokesperson Ned Price and the Vatican and, when asked specifically at a news conference afterwards, Blinken would not be drawn.
He said the meeting with the pope was “extremely warm and very wide ranging” but he did not answer directly, saying that domestic politics was not part of his job.
Price said that Blinken in his talks with Parolin and Gallagher discussed various topics including human rights and religious freedom in China.
Price said Blinken also discussed China with the pope, as well as refugees, climate change, Lebanon, Syria and Ethiopia.
Since the Vatican and Beijing signed an agreement in 2018 on the naming of bishops in China, critics of the deal have appealed to the Vatican to speak out more about religious freedom in Hong Kong and mainland China.
NATO took a tough line on China at Biden’s debut summit earlier this month.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said that the atmosphere was cordial and that it gave the pope a chance “to express his affection for and attention to, the people of the United States of America”.
The Vatican and the Biden administration agree on the dangers of climate change, which was a main point of contention with the White House while Donald Trump was president.
Trump was dismissive of the problem as he dismantled climate policies and regulations on fossil fuels.
The pope criticised Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the 2015 Paris accord to limit global warming. The Vatican welcomed Biden’s return to the accord.
Blinken gave the pope a gold and silver sculpture of a dove holding an olive branch and pope gave him copies of several of his writings, including the landmark 2015 encyclical “Laudado Si” on the protection of the environment.
(Humeyra Pamuk reporting from Rome; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Steve Orlofsky)