This week, Barack Obama announced that he would make a historic visit to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis. The last state visit from a US president took place nearly six years ago, when George W. Bush met with now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in June just as his plan to boost troop strength in Iraq started bearing fruit in a war that Pope John Paul II had opposed.
In 2004, Bush visited the soon-to-be-canonized Catholic saint to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, despite their disagreement, in honor of his role in liberating Eastern Europe from Soviet totalitarianism.
Every President since Richard Nixon has made the trip to Vatican City, including Obama in July 2009. Rubbing elbows with a Catholic pontiff allows American presidents to burnish their credentials with 58 million Catholics in the US, but also to absorb some moral authority – even though none of the presidents have actually been Catholic.
Bush had the most meetings with popes – six in all, only one of which was in the US, split between his two terms and two Popes. His poll numbers in his second term don’t show any impact of that close affiliation, but Bush and Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II had clear affinity on the right to life issue.
A similar affinity drives this meeting as well. Pope Francis, in his recent apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), lamented the increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor. Like Obama, Francis criticized “unfettered capitalism” and “trickle-down economics” as the complete solution to poverty and want. None of this is new to Catholics who know their church’s teaching on economics; and the thrust of the exhortation wasn’t on national economic policies but on individual Christians to act to address those who get left out by any economic system – to live the Gospel as well as proclaim it.
This coincides nicely with Obama’s strategies for policy and politics in 2014. Last month, his speechwriter drafted an address on income inequality for the President to deliver before Christmas on the need to orient policy around the fight against poverty. Obama sent it back with an instruction to add a reference to Pope Francis.
The final version included this Francis quote: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?"
The pontiff himself raised the stakes again this week in an address to the Davos Economic Forum. After thanking them for the invitation, Francis sent a representative who challenged the attendees to open themselves to the transcendent. And this is where Obama will likely find Francis a difficult ally.
In his message, he recognized that advances in healthcare, education, and communications came from the efforts of industry and market-based businesses. “[W]e must recognize the fundamental role that modern business activity has had in bringing about these changes,” Francis declared, “by stimulating and developing the immense resources of human intelligence.”
The problem with inequality has less to do with specific policies or systemic mechanisms than the loss of perspective about the sacred nature of life as the ultimate end in the service of economics. Business “is a noble vocation,” Francis said, quoting Evangelii Gaudium, but like all vocations should serve humanity and not the other way around.
The solution to income inequality, Francis argues, has to be found in that reordering of priorities. “It demands first of all 'a transcendent vision of the person,' because 'without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing-space’,” he explained while quoting his predecessor Benedict XVI.
Obama may end up being surprised that Francis really isn’t interested in offering policy endorsements as he is at changing hearts and saving souls. There will certainly be some correlation on messaging, but Francis and the Vatican’s teachings on economics as a subsidiary consideration to personal action for salvation can’t be pigeonholed into Obama’s plans to demonize the wealthy and hike taxes.
In the first place, some of Obama’s own allies on economic policy provide excellent examples of the distorted priorities that place wealth and other pursuits over human life. Warren Buffett, who has championed some of Obama’s policy proposals, is currently trying to make a point about the odds on predicting the NCAA college basketball playoffs perfectly by underwriting a one billion dollar prize for anyone who can do it.
George Soros, who funds numerous progressive political efforts and also supports Obama, made his money off of currency bets and manipulation that damaged economies, which is just about the antithesis of Francis’ point to the Davos conference.
Even on policy, Obama will find Francis a challenge. The Obama administration, for instance, forced an end to a school voucher program in Washington DC – where the federal government has direct jurisdiction – that helped educate poor children and prepare them for economic success. Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Social Development, including the USCCB programs to fight poverty, and he brought up that decision when speaking to the Washington Post about the upcoming meeting. “If Obama would see our way with the voucher system,” Wenski said, “we could help get a lot of kids out of poverty by giving them the tools to have a successful life through Catholic schools.”
This brings up two huge issues that will certainly be on the Pope’s agenda on March 27th. First, the efforts by Barack Obama and his HHS to redefine and limit religious expression to merely freedom to worship within the confines of a church hammers the Catholic Church and its affiliated organizations in their own efforts to fight poverty and want in the US.
Catholic schools, hospitals, clinics, and even convents now face having to either facilitate contraception against their own doctrine or shut down as ruinous fines bankrupt them. Don’t expect Francis to give Obama a free photo opportunity without forcing him to answer for that attack on Catholic efforts to help in the effort Obama claims to prioritize.
Even more fundamentally, Francis will challenge Obama on abortion. As his message to Davos makes clear, the very undergirding principle for social justice is the equal sanctity and dignity of all human life at all stages of development. American presidents who travel to the Vatican to declare inequality and poverty as the most pressing issues of the day, while at the same time celebrating the anniversary of Roe v Wade by declaring that “this is a country where everyone deserves the same freedom and opportunities to fulfill their dreams” is itching for a fight.
Francis might take exception to that premise and point out that 55 million children didn’t even have the first opportunity to dream, let alone fulfill one, thanks to the “throwaway culture” and selfish priorities of the modern culture that Francis decried in his exhortation. The first inequality that Francis wants addressed is the inequality of abortion and the lack of respect for the dignity of all human life – as Obama would know if he had read Evangelii Gaudium in the first place.
Until Obama offers a plan that reorients the culture away from selfishness and avarice, he and Francis may offer similar rhetoric – but they will be as far apart on the actual issues as two world leaders could be.
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