An announcement by the Vatican on Thursday evening that it had canceled the planned live broadcast of the beginning of the meeting between President Biden and Pope Francis — limiting it just to the arrival of Mr. Biden’s motorcade — quickly became grist for partisan analysis.
“The Biden Administration was hoping to have extensive media coverage of the President and the Pope during their meeting tomorrow,” the deeply conservative Catholic League wrote on Twitter. “But now the Vatican has thrown a monkey wrench into this opportunistic gambit.”
Matteo Bruni, the Vatican spokesman, described the limited access as “normal procedure” during the pandemic, and the Vatican said it would supply news organizations with edited video clips after the meeting. But as of Friday morning, more access was still under discussion, and the White House said it was pushing for that.
The actual substance of audiences with the pope, especially with heads of state, are always restricted, but in the past reporters and sometimes independent news cameras were able to be present in the Apostolic Palace to witness the greetings and the exchange of gifts.
Limited as that access was, it gave a sense of the tone of a meeting, and sometimes reporters picked up snippets of newsworthy conversation.
On Friday, the global press corps was also fighting for access. Reporters and photographers are typically allowed a few minutes to view visiting heads of state exchange greetings and gifts with the pope. Such visits date back to the era of Woodrow Wilson, who in 1919 became the first U.S. president to visit Vatican City.
The Vatican’s history of obfuscation, opaqueness and Pravda-like messaging is well established. In 2005, the day after Pope John Paul II underwent a tracheotomy to relieve respiratory problems, the Vatican’s then spokesman told reporters that he had enjoyed a breakfast of 10 cookies. He died soon after.
But a penchant for privacy has created a communications challenge for the institution, especially in a social-media age in which immediate information and incessant updates are expected.
Pope Francis, for instance, believes that granular details of his health are not necessarily anyone else’s business.