No one should overstate the significance of yesterday’s meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis at the Vatican. But, the images tell an important tale, one that certainly helps Obama at the margins.
Any pope and any president have wildly different sources of strength. Stalin famously asked, “How many divisions has the pope?” a question his successors were to raise without sarcasm in the 1980s. Since the loss of the papal states in the mid-nineteenth century – which the Vatican saw as a calamity but was actually the best thing to happen to the papacy in centuries – the Roman pontiff’s strength has been solely spiritual and moral. A president’s strength really is rooted in divisions and economic power. The two men’s jobs are different and their points of reference are different. Consequently, these meetings between popes and presidents are usually difficult to assess in terms of short-term significance and import.
But, in the days before the meeting, Cardinal Raymond Burke, head of the Apostolic Signatura, said in an interview that the president’s policies were a “threat to Christian civilization.” He described Obama as a thoroughly secularized man. In recent years, most especially during the 2009 controversy over the president speaking at Notre Dame, certain Catholic leaders and commentators have portrayed the president as a pariah, as someone beyond the pale, someone with whom no good Catholic would be seen in public.
The pictures yesterday, like those from Obama’s visit to Pope Benedict in 2009, give the lie to the histrionics coming from the far right benches of the U.S. Church. As they emerged from their meeting, there was no tension between the two men, no signs of strain. They spoke to each other easily, they laughed, their handshake was longer than usual. Either the meeting went well or those two deserve an Oscar. The meeting went well. Does that mean all tensions between Church and State will vanish? Of course not. Does it mean that the next time Cardinal Burke excoriates the president as somehow demonic, Pope Francis will take the criticism with a grain of salt? I suspect so.
Not many U.S. Catholics are as ideologically polarized as Cardinal Burke. In any given presidential election, 46% of Catholics vote for the Democrat and 46% vote for the Republican. Nothing that transpired yesterday is likely to alter those numbers. It is a commonplace to note that the Catholic Church stands with the Republicans on one set of issues and with the Democrats on a different set of issues. The commonplace is true. But, over the past several decades, a sizeable number of very vocal prelates have made the case that the issues on which the Church’s position coheres with the Republicans trump the issues that cohere with the Democrats and, consequently, a good Catholic should vote for the GOP. This is not said so blatantly, but it is communicated to be sure. I think in the Pope Francis papacy, it is harder to make that claim and yesterday’s visit only reinforced that fact: The pope speaks relentlessly about the poor and, with very few exceptions, most Republican leaders do not evidence much concern about the poor.
Meetings like yesterday’s affect politics at the margins and Obama’s difficulties are not at the margins. The Democrats are heading into a low turnout election which means the electorate will be older and whiter and more conservative than in a presidential year. The problems with the rollout of Obamacare were deadly. The still anemic economy does not help. The situation in the world is chaotic and Obama is a man who likes to find the right answer. One visit with Pope Francis is not going to change the political landscape. But, another chink in the armor of the culture warriors was delivered yesterday. Their “us vs. them” worldview has trouble making sense of the photos we all saw of pope and president clearly enjoying each others’ company. One hopes this will give the culture warriors a chance to reflect. It is a large hope.