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Obama Enthusiastic About the Francis Factor

Washington is taking notice of Pope Francis, but the political implications are still murky.

10/04/2013 Comments (74)

President Obama praised Pope Francis during an Oct. 2 televised interview, and said he was "hugely impressed" with the Argentinian pontiff's tone and message.

Politico reported that Obama did not single out statements made by the pope during his recent blockbuster interview. That said, the brief news story provided relevant context for the president's remarks that might help explain the praise 

The pope has made recent comments arguing that the Catholic Church should focus on more than just a few hot-button social issues. In an interview last month, he said he “cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptives.”

Obama told CNBC that he didn't admire the pope  

"because of any particular issue”

Rather

“he seems somebody who lives out the teachings of Christ” 

and has an

 “incredible humility, an incredible sense of empathy to the least of these, to the poor.” .

“And he's also somebody who's, I think, first and foremost, thinking about how to embrace people as opposed to push them away, how to find what's good in them as opposed to condemn them.”

It's official: Washington has taken note of the "Francis Factor," the title chosen for a crowded Oct. 1 confernce at Georgetown University.Grabbing the headlines and excitement provoked by Pope Francis' unscripted interviews, the Jesuit university  kicked off  its new initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, which will be   led by John Carr, who previously advised the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on social justice matters.

As always, the Washington Post's Melinda Henneberger offered interesting, nuanced coverage of the event. She noted the enthusiasm of the younger than usual crowd, the unprecedented mix of "lefties" and "Opus Dei" Catholics, and the bemusement of some of the event's panelists, who are still sizing up the new pontiff, and represented the broad spectrum of Catholic viewpoints in the nation's capitol

speakers included Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, who clashed just last year over an invitation to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speak at graduation. There, too, were Kim Daniels, who co-founded Catholic Voices USA, a more conservative-leaning group, and Alexia Kelley, who founded Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a more liberal one.

 E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and author, were also among the panelists. Brooks, the only non-Catholic, offered some reflections on the Francis moment, and warned that the message filtered through the interviews and media coverage could reduce the "tough-minded" reachings of the Church to "mushiness."

LIke all the speakers, Brooks predicted that Francis would play an unprecedented role on the world stage, at the level of Blessed John Paul II. He was especially struck by the new pope's humble tone. In our "confident culture." Francis has set aside sweeping certitudes and is "modest about what he knows." Brooks called this "epistomological modesty," and suggested that it is a departure for Church leaders who borrowed worldly "munitions" to defend the Church and Catholic teaching in an often hostile environment. 

Brooks, for all his admiration for Franics, seemed fearful that the shift in tone and message  could be used to undercut Pope Benedict's repeated warnings of a "dictatorship of relativism." 

The Post's Henneberger  summed it up this way

Brooks wondered whether the pope’s “epistemological modesty’’ could “slide into mooshiness,’’ a.k.a. relativism. Believers exhausted by the culture wars are more likely to appreciate that Francis reassured an atheist newspaper editor in Italy that he wouldn’t try to convert him. There are many kinds of conversion, though.

 

But John Carr, Kim Daniels and other presentors suggested that Francis' message would build on his predecessor's legacy, briding the divide within the church, and offering a model of open dialogue to Washington.

Indeed, with the government shutdown, immigration reform, cuts in public assistance, and pro-life issues of vital importance to many attendees, the panelists considered whether the Francis Factor might shake uup the status quo on Capitol Hill. But there was no agreement on what pope's impact would be.

Brooks, for his part, suggested that the pope's message transcended partisan politics, and challenged "the rising individualism in both parties and across the culture. the rising ethos of agency and autonomy....You are in control of your own life."  

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Georgetown event was that Brooks,  the only non-Catholic speaker, seemed most intent on reminding his  colleagues to protect and secure the legacy they have received while embracing this new moment in church history. Catholics may be preoccupied with Francis' efforts to heal wounds within the Church. But for Brooks, the Roman Pontiff plays a unique and irreplaceable role on the world stage and he is eager for Francis to fill the large shoes of John Paul and Benedict.

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About Joan Desmond

Joan Desmond
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Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in Menlo Park, Ca, in the San Francisco Archdiocese.