When Barack Obama met Pope Francis on Thursday, it was the 28th encounter between a US president and a pope since Benedict XV received Woodrow Wilson in 1919. By now, the post-game analysis in America has become almost as predictable as the protocol in the Vatican.
What American pundits inevitably want to know is, “Who won?” That is to say, who got the biggest political bump out of the meeting?
That sort of quick take can be fun and provocative, but, honestly, it is probably not the best way to look at it. For one thing, you’d like to believe that presidents, and certainly popes, are capable of a loftier perspective. For another, the full range of Catholic social teaching isn’t really a good fit for either major political party in America, so these encounters are always a mixed bag capable of being read in different ways by different constituencies.
That said, the scorecard on Thursday’s first meeting between Obama and Francis has to be that each man got something important out of it, which is often what happens when two shrewd political operators intersect.
Obama, of course, is struggling at the moment to maintain Democratic control of the Senate in the midterm elections, which looks like an uphill battle. Both his own political troubles and those of his party are related in part to antipathy among religious voters, including a fairly big chunk of the Catholic vote.
To take just one example, prominent American Catholic writer George Weigel opined this week that Obama’s policies, especially the controversial contraception mandates imposed as part of health care reform, have put the church “on a collision course with the government unparalleled in US Catholic history.”
In that context, smiling shots of Obama and Francis together may help reframe impressions. It’s harder to style the president as an enemy of the faith in light of pictures of him and the pontiff yucking it up, which could help among Catholic moderates. Perhaps even more importantly, the images complicate efforts by Obama’s Catholic foes to whip up opposition.
The meeting probably also delivered a boost to Catholic Democrats, who have come under increasing pressure to explain how they can stay loyal to a party perceived by some as hostile to the church. When L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, ran a picture of Obama and Francis on Friday under the headline “Shared Commitment,” it gave those Catholic Democrats something to work with in arguing that their party can, after all, “do God.”
Francis had less to gain on Thursday, largely because he entered the meeting in a much stronger position; he is, at the moment, just about the most popular public figure on earth. Yet he did have something to lose, both among the Catholic bishops of the United States and the church’s wide antiabortion constituency.
With regard to American bishops, they’ve made the defense of religious freedom their new signature issue, symbolized by the stand-off with the administration over the contraception mandates. If the take-away from the Obama summit had been that they didn’t have the support of the pope, it would weaken their position, and might have soured a few of them on the new boss.
As for abortion opponents, many were already wary about Francis because of his repeated calls to dial down the rhetoric in the wars of culture. If they got the sense that he had given Obama a free pass on the life issues, their wariness might begin to turn into overt estrangement.
Francis deftly avoided those outcomes, signaling the American bishops that he has their backs while reassuring abortion opponents that a softer tone doesn’t imply softer substance.
He did that in two ways, first by handing Obama a copy of his recent apostolic exhortation Evangelium Gaudium. The president said he’d read it in the Oval Office when he’s “deeply frustrated,” in the hope that “it will give me strength and calm me down.”
One wonders, however, how much calm he’ll draw from this sentence: “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.” The pope bluntly says that on abortion, “the church cannot be expected to change her position.”
(As a footnote, using documents to make statements vis-à-vis Obama is becoming a fine Vatican art. When Obama called on Benedict XVI in 2009, the pontiff handed him a copy of Dignitas Personae, a document on bioethics. Then as now, the pope didn’t have to say anything more because the gift spoke for itself.)
The Vatican also flashed support for the American bishops in its statement after the meeting, citing “the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life, and conscientious objection” as matters of “particular relevance” in the conversation. To be sure, they were listed along with other matters where Obama and Francis are more in sync, such as immigration reform, but nobody could accuse the pope of going quiet on the life issues.
At the end of the day, Francis could hardly be said to have taken Obama to the woodshed, but abortion opponents couldn’t have asked for much more by way of raising the flag.
Summing up, Obama got a picture with a smiling pope splashed across the front page of every American paper, while Francis avoided some needless internal heartburn. The meeting may not have changed the world, but it was still fun to watch two savvy tacticians operate, both aware of the other’s agenda and both purposeful in pursuing their own.
Big push for Francis to visit Philadelphia in 2015
If Pope Francis doesn’t come to Philadelphia in September 2015 for a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families, it won’t be for lack of trying on the part of either church or state in Pennsylvania.
This week a remarkable delegation visited the Vatican to meet with officials about the 2015 event, led by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a Democrat, along with Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. (Both Corbett and Nutter are Catholic, and on Wednesday Nutter gave Francis a jersey from the Jesuit high school the mayor attended.)
The obvious agenda was to pitch Francis on coming to Philadelphia, and while the Vatican won’t ever confirm a trip this far away, the signals look encouraging.
God knows the church in Philly could use the shot in the arm.
Chaput, who arrived in Philadelphia from Denver in 2011, has been struggling to right the ship in the wake of two separate grand jury investigations related to clerical sexual abuse, the first-ever indictment of a senior church official for failure to protect children, and massive deficits that have forced the closure of parishes and schools and even the sell-off of the archbishop’s residence.
Locals are pulling out all the stops to persuade Francis to make the trip, including a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #PopeInPhilly. There’s much at stake, because the presence or absence of the pope is the difference between an insider Catholic event that might draw a few thousand folks, and a major national happening that might bring out 1 or 2 million.
At the moment, the leading theory is that if Francis comes to Philadelphia in September 2015, the trip would likely be bundled with a stop in New York to address the General Assembly of the United Nations. The pontiff probably couldn’t avoid also making a stop in Washington, especially after House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to him to address a joint session of Congress.
On the Vatican end, the top official responsible for the 2015 event is Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family. He met with Corbett, Nutter, Chaput and the rest of the Philadelphia delegation this week, and afterwards he spoke to the Globe.
Q&A with Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia
Globe: How likely is it that Pope Francis will be in Philadel phia?
Paglia: If you look at how welcoming he was to the delegation today, it certainly makes one think he’d like to come. Both the governor and the mayor had a long time to talk with him. Given that human warmth, along with the importance of the theme of the family and how focused the Catholic church now is on it, I think it’s reasonable to imagine the presence of the pope in Philadelphia. That said, these trips are never confirmed more than four or five months in advance, and I don’t want to speak for the pope. We have to leave him the freedom to make the decision himself.
Globe: If he does come, it would be the first time in his life that Francis has visited the United States. Do you think that might be an extra reason he’d be inclined to do it?
Paglia: Certainly that’s an additional reason to do it, though I believe the fundamental point is how important the theme of the family is to Pope Francis and to the church. I think all these reasons contribute to an environment in which it’s okay to hope for a positive decision.
Globe: You also know that the pope has been invited to address a joint session of the American Congress. Does that also make the trip more likely?
Paglia: It adds to the weight of the moment. I can tell you the pope is well aware of the attention being given to the possibility of his coming, not just in the archdiocese but throughout American society.
Globe: When talk turns to the family in American politics, people often assume it’s all about the press for gay marriage. Are you at all concerned that this event could be misunderstood as a huge anti-gay-marriage rally?
Paglia: I want to do everything possible to avoid falling into that trap, because this isn’t an ideological exercise. I hope what we can do is to lift up the hopes and the anguish, the joys and the fears, of real concrete families. There are millions and millions of elderly persons, young adults, children, babies, immigrants, and so on, all around the world, who depend on their families. The family is not an abstract idea. It’s something that everyone experiences, and our greatest effort must be to lift up the world’s most beautiful and most important source of human solidarity.
This is not a political rally. The World Meeting of Families never has been, and it isn’t now, a demonstration against someone or something. It’s a meeting of thousands of men and women who want to testify to the beauty and the possibilities of the family. It’s also a chance to enter into dialogue with all Christian traditions and all religious traditions who share our interest. I hope we can have a frank dialogue with the American media so they see this clearly.
Globe: What do you hope will be the most important result from the event?
Paglia: Obviously, what we’re trying to promote is a sort of springtime for the family, a renewal of the family across the entire world. When families are strong, they give life in a very concrete way to the all of society. We’d also like to raise the cultural profile of the issues facing the family. Ideally, we can help promote the same centrality that Pope Francis has given to the family in the Catholic church in other institutions, such as politics, the economy, cultural institutions, and the legal system.
Globe: During his comments at the Vatican press conference on Tuesday, Archbishop Charles Chaput said the event is especially important for Philadelphia because of the way it’s been affected by the sexual abuse scandals. Are you aware of how much impact those scandals have had in Philadelphia and other parts of the United States?
Paglia: We’ve certainly spoken about it. The World Meeting of Families actually can be very sensitive to it, because in a way the scandals have caused a weakening of the sense of family within the Christian community. It’s important that we foster co-responsibility, mutual support, reciprocal respect, and honesty as part of a family spirit in the church, which I hope in some way can help heal the wounds of the past.
Globe: If Pope Francis does come to the United States next year, do you believe he understands that he’d have to address the sexual abuse scandals?
Paglia: I believe so, and I think the sensitivity of the pope on this issue is very clear. The recent creation of a new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is already a sign of that concern. If he comes to America, I’m sure the pope wouldn’t fail to take account of how important all this is.
Bishops on the Border to push immigration reform
American Catholic bishops often complain about media bias in styling them as “partisan”, which in their case usually means pro-Republican. The bishops insist that if one looks at all the issues they care about, from immigration reform and overseas development to abortion and gay marriage, it’s clear they’re not in anybody’s pocket.
Here’s the usual reply from media types: As soon as we see you guys putting the same energy into those other issues as you do the antiabortion agenda, we’ll reconsider.
This week a group of nine Catholic bishops are aiming to do just that, by staging a series of dramatic made-for-TV events on both sides of the US/Mexico border to show their support for immigration reform. It’s a matter of both humanitarian and practical concern for the bishops, given that fully one-third of the 70 million Catholics in America today are Hispanic, many of them recent immigrants.
The prelates say the purpose of the outing is “to bring attention to the human consequences of a broken immigration system and call upon the US Congress to act to fix the system.”
Led by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, whose own pastoral roots lie in work with Latino immigrants and refugees in Washington’s Centro Católico Hispano in the 1970s, the bishops are gathering in an area on the border between Arizona and Mexico where scores of migrants have died trying to make the crossing. (The US Border Patrol pegs the death count at 6,000 over the last 15 years, though many observers believe the real number is much higher.)
The trip will culminate on Tuesday morning with a Mass in the desert near Nogales, Arizona, and the laying of a wreath to commemorate the dead. The bishops have invited media organizations to tag along, and will hold a press conference after the Tuesday Mass.
The bishops are consciously imitating Pope Francis, who traveled on July 8 to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa to show his solidarity with immigrants. The island is a major point of arrival for impoverished migrants from Africa and the Middle East seeking to reach Europe, and some 20,000 are believed to have died over the last two decades trying to make the crossing.
During that trip, his first outside Rome as pope, Francis laid a wreath in the sea for the dead and also delivered a speech blasting what he called the “globalization of indifference” to immigrants.
“The US-Mexico border is our Lampedusa,” said Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio L. Elizondo of Seattle, a Mexican-born prelate who serves as chair of the US bishops’ Committee on Migration. “Migrants in this hemisphere try to reach it, but often die in the attempt.”
In addition to O’Malley and Elizondo, the bishops taking part are:
► Bishop Gerald Kicanas, Tucson, Arizona
► Bishop John Wester, Salt Lake City, Utah
► Bishop Mark Seitz, El Paso, Texas
► Bishop Cirilo Flores, San Diego, Calfornia
► Bishop Oscar Cantú, Las Cruces, New Mexico
► Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, Las Cruces, New Mexico (retired)
► Auxiliary Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama Pasqualetto, Atlanta, Georgia
Francis is a pope of the social gospel, of special concern for the poor, and there’s been an undercurrent of speculation for a while now about how much enthusiasm American bishops might feel about those priorities. This week’s outing would suggest that these nine prelates, at any rate, have gotten the memo.
John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.