WASHINGTON — Pope Francis’ 52-minute meeting with President Barack Obama on March 27 capped a week of intense media speculation about the likely winners and losers of the high-profile exchange between a popular pope and a U.S. commander in chief seeking to reverse sagging poll numbers and contain crises abroad.
The meeting was scheduled two days after the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments for a pair of free-exercise cases filed against the Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate, and religious-freedom activists feared the White House would use the meeting to blunt public criticism of its controversial law.
Meanwhile, in the run-up to the meeting, the White House and its political allies emphasized areas of common concern between Obama and Francis, linking the Holy Father’s call for greater engagement with the poor to the White House’s campaign against “income inequality,” a key theme for the Democrats’ messaging as they move closer to the 2014 midterm elections.
“The White House will try and use the Pope as an ally in its efforts to shore up the president’s dwindling popularity,” George Weigel told the Register a few days before Obama was scheduled to meet Francis.
But Weigel said it was “inconceivable” that the HHS mandate “won’t be one subject of discussion, irrespective of what the White House spin machine grinds out. After all, what is at stake here is the Church’s capacity to be that ‘field hospital’ the Pope has called us to be.”
Weigel was apparently correct. After the landmark meeting, the typically discreet Vatican Information Service issued a 137-word statement that fell short of offering any papal endorsement of the president’s economic policies and talking points.
Instead, the communiqué registered the Holy See’s concerns about key foreign policy issues, immigration reform and the administration’s impingement on religious freedom.
Still, when Obama was asked to offer his account of the meeting at a March 27 press conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, he insisted that very little time was spent on social issues, while both leaders embraced the need for empathy as a starting point for addressing the needs of the poor and promoting peace.
“[T]he largest bulk of the time was discussing two central concerns of his. One is the issues of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity, and growing inequality,” said the president, in response to a reporter’s question.
The Pope, said Obama, was “shining a spotlight on an area that’s going to be of increasing concern, and that is reduced opportunities for more and more people,” leading to growing economic “inequality.”
However, the president did acknowledge that he discussed religious-freedom issues when he met with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
“I pledged to continue to dialogue with the U.S. Conference of [Catholic] Bishops to make sure that we can strike the right balance” between religious freedom and securing women’s access to all the health-care provisions authorized under the Affordable Care Act, said the president, echoing his administration’s defense of the mandate’s narrow exemption.
James Nicholson, a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, dismissed the president’s description of his meeting with the Pope.
“The reports from the White House and the Vatican about the meeting’s focus are so dissimilar that one can only interpret them as another example of how disingenuous President Obama can be,” Nicholson told the Register.
“He sees the political advantage of tying himself to the Pope’s rising star, even as he attacks religious liberty.”
During his March 27 press conference after the meeting, Obama said, “We spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world,” noting that the two had addressed the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort, the civil war in Syria, Lebanon and the “potential persecution of Christians.”
“I reaffirmed that it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world,” Obama stated.
Michael Novak, an author and professor at Ave Maria University, expressed regret that Obama, despite his remarks at the press conference, had not yet made the religious persecution of Christians a priority. While the Holy See is already alarmed about the exodus of Christians fleeing the Middle East, Novak said that Ukrainian Christians also face a threat in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
“There could be a powerful alliance between the Pope and Obama, but Obama is not leading on religious freedom,” said Novak, who noted that past administrations made the struggles of religious minorities a priority.
As expected, immigration reform, a key concern of the U.S. bishops and the Holy See and an important political issue for the president, was a significant part of the papal-presidential exchange.
In recent years, the U.S. bishops have called attention to the plight of undocumented families who have been pulled apart by stepped-up deportations across the country, and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles has said that one in four of those deported are being taken from intact families.
However, the Vatican statement made no mention of income inequality or other economic issues discussed during the high-level meeting. And V. Bradley Lewis, an authority on Catholic social thought at The Catholic University of America, told the Register that a pope would approach the plight of the poor from a different perspective than a U.S. president.
“The Pope is constantly reminding us of what the priorities are for followers of Christ. It remains for laypersons who are public officials and policy intellectuals to work out measures to alleviate poverty and promote the common good in its totality,” noted Lewis.
“Inequality and poverty are two different things: One can have great inequality that coexists with what is generally a rather high standard of living. It can also be the case that the conditions that lead to great inequality can also stunt economic growth for those least well-off.”
“The details of economic policy are not the Pope’s main portfolio. His concern, demonstrated over and over again, is with the poor, especially in the developing world, and those things which impede their complete development as persons,” added Lewis, who noted that cultural and moral values can also hamper upward mobility.
During Obama’s press conference with the Italian prime minister, one reporter asked the president whether the church-state divide over social issues “would stand in the way of you and Pope Francis collaborating or forming a strategic alliance to tackle income inequality.”
Obama acknowledged, perhaps ruefully, that the Holy Father would not give his imprimatur for any White House policy initiatives.
“I don’t think that His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or a coalition with any political figure on any issue,” said the president.
Food for Thought
It should come as no surprise that the president left the Vatican without a papal endorsement of his messaging on income equality. Pope Francis’ predecessors have also disappointed political leaders who sought their approval.
However, Pope Francis did give Obama a gift, nevertheless — a copy of Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). That apostolic exhortation offers a blueprint of the Pope’s plan for evangelization to the fringes of the Church, and features a critique of market economies that ignore the needs of the poor..
But the papal document also has a good deal to say about the evil of abortion and the necessity of religious freedom.
“A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques,” wrote Pope Francis.
President Obama thanked the Pope for giving him his exhortation and said he would read it.
Replied the Pope, “I hope.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.