U.S. President Barack Obama and Pope Francis exchange gifts during a private audience at the Vatican March 27. (CNS photo/Gabriel Bouys, pool via EPA) (March 27, 2014)
How quickly things change. It wasn't that many years ago that Barack
Obamaas a candidate, and then as President of the U.S.was lauded with
praise and descriptives that, if applied to a pontiff, would have caused
many to wonder, "Has the Church declared the Pope to be the Fourth
Person of the Trinity?" In 2008which in the Age of the Internet is
roughly 259 years agothe victorious Obama told an ecstatic crowd in St.
Paul, Minnesota, "America, this is our moment. This is our time. Our
time to turn the page on the policies of the past. Our time to bring new
energy and new ideas to the challenges we face. Our time to offer a new
direction for the country we love."
And then these rather famous lines:
journey will be difficult. The road will be long. I face this challenge
with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also
face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people.
Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe
in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will
be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when
we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless;
this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our
planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and
secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on
Earth. This was the moment - this was the time - when we came together
to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best
selves, and our highest ideals.
Those were the good 'ol days,
before realityin the form of daily governance and a dubious reworking
of the nation's healthcare systemset in. There are many other factors,
of course, all of which have led to a steady decline in the President's popularity, to the point that the Pope is, percentage-wisetwice as popular, as The Daily Caller notes:
Francis currently enjoys an 85 percent approval rating among American
Catholics and a 63 percent approval rating among all Americans,
according to a new poll from the Saint Leo University Polling Institute.
Just 5 percent of American Catholics and 8 percent of all Americans have a negative view of Pope Francis’ job performance.
a new AP-GfK poll found that just 41 percent of Americans approve of
Obama’s job performance, which is the second lowest point the poll has
ever hit, according to the Washington Post. Some 59 percent of Americans
disapprove of Obama, which is a percentage point greater than the
previous high in December.
To be fair, Obama was elected by a
generally fickle block of voters, and most Presidents suffer a steady
decline in popularity, in part because the Age of Celebrity cannot long
bear to be engaged, never mind married, to yesterday's savioer,
celebrituh, once-in-a-lifetime leader. (Remember when Justin Bieber and
Tramp GaGa were the hottest items around?) The vigorous and often
vicious 24/7 grind of news and commentary tends to eat up nearly
anything of transitory character, including statements long on promise
but short on clarity and, in many cases, sound principles.
irony, in short, is that President Obama has been losing clout and
stature, in part, because he is now drowning in the waters of instant
celebrity and cult of personality that he once strode upon like a post-modern, post-political messiah.
Americans, it appears, are increasingly tired of the show, and the
weariness is not just a matter of party lines. And while Obama has
benefitted (to put it mildly) from the sort of fawning press reports
that make People magazine look like the poster child of
rigorous journalism, the dog days of his presidential malaise appear to
be underway. Thus the need to grab at anything at all to boost the
numbers, freshen the image, and rally the frustrated troops. Thus the
need to present, if at all possible, today's meeting with Pope Francis
as a melding of similar minds and hearts: caring, principled, and
dedicated to freedom, goodness, and such.
The New York Times did its part last week to shape the metanarrative by printing a predictable piece of obligatory spin, titled, "The Catholic Roots of Obama’s Activism"
(Mar. 22), by Jason Horowitz, which focused on Obama's time spent
working as a community organizer in Chicago in the late 1980s:
the time of that session in the spring of 1987, Mr. Obama himself not
Catholic was already well known in Chicago’s black Catholic circles.
He had arrived two years earlier to fill an organizing position paid for
by a church grant, and had spent his first months here surrounded by
Catholic pastors and congregations. In this often overlooked period of
the president’s life, he had a desk in a South Side parish and became
steeped in the social justice wing of the church, which played a
powerful role in his political formation.
Why, exactly, has that
formative time been an "often overlooked period"? It is strange,
frankly, that any signficant period in Obama's life could be overlooked,
considering that he had penned two memoirs by the time he was barely
into his forties, that he lives in an era of seemingly instant and total
data, and that he is among the most widely recognized people in the
world. But now, five years into Obama's presidency, the Times is suddently touting the POTUS's deep Catholic roots. (What's that? Douglas Kmiec is on the phone? He says he wants his book back.)
The obviousness of the attempted spin is equalled only by the
shallowness of the piece and the refusal to recognize a simple fact:
1987 is not 2014. As Kathryn Jean Lopez writes:
There were a few problems with that piece. First, of all, of course, there was the missing cover story on the Little Sisters of the Poor.
This morning, before dawn in the Northeast United States, as the pope
met the president, an MSNBC host described the two as “champions of
income equality.” Don’t tell me President Obama is a champion of income
equality when the Little Sisters of the Poor women religious who serve
the elderly poor are in court seeking the religious freedom that is
our God-given right, and once a herald of our country.
words: if there are still people willing to buy the line that Obama is
basically Catholicin both spirit and principleI have a summer home in
Nome, Alaska, with an outdoor swimming pool, that I'm looking to sell
right away. That ship tried to sail, but it sank rather quickly,
beginning with Obama's visits to Notre Dame and Georgetown, his staunch
support of abortion and (later) "gay marriage", and continuing with the
contentious HHS mandate.
Horowitz, however, tried mightly to make cotton candy out of cotton:
Thursday, Mr. Obama will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican after a
three-decade divergence with the church. By the late 1980s, the Catholic
hierarchy had taken a conservative turn that de-emphasized social
engagement and elevated the culture wars that would eventually cast Mr.
Obama as an abortion-supporting enemy. Mr. Obama, who went on to find
his own faith with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’s Trinity United
Church of Christ, drifted from his youthful, church-backed activism to
become a pragmatic politician and the president with a terrorist “kill
list.” The meeting this week is a potential point of confluence.
see, it wasn't Obama's open and continual and unwavering support of
abortion that caused him to be criticized as an open and continual and
unwavering supporter of abortionno, it those dreaded "conservative"
Catholic bishops and their rigid views about protecting the unborn.
Besides, he simply "drifted" to another position, just a restless heart
looking for a place of hope and change, which he apparently found in a
church run by a radical, even racist, demagogue. Perhaps the young Obama
was merely pushed along by the quiet, powerful forces of history,
unaware of his greatness until the Chicago political machine revealed it
to him? Does that sound likely? No, it doesn't, and Stanley Kurtzone
of the few journalists who has extensively researched that "often
overlooked period of the president’s life"takes Horowitz's grand,
Hegelian-laced narrative apart, brick by crumbling brick:
So, yes, as the New York Times
claims, Obama was effectively proselytizing for the Catholic church.
But this was part of a larger, far more questionable and controversial
deal. Effectively it was an attempt by Galluzzo, Kellman, and Obama to
commandeer local Catholic congregations from within, turning them into
political shock troops in their hardball Alinskyite organizing ventures.
In my book Radical-in-Chief,
I lay out Galluzzo’s Catholic strategy and show the sort of events he
encouraged his new congregational recruits to participate in: trapping a
U.S. senator in a ladies room, pushing for a school to be named after
anti-American heroes, singling out and intimidating opponents by calling
them “enemies of the community,” and besieging them at their homes.
Obama worked directly with UNO of Chicago during his organizing days,
and funded his Alinskyite friends to run these tactics for years
thereafter from his position on the boards of several left-leaning
I think Obama has been, from a very early
age, a pragmatic politician, especially if "pragmatic" means getting
ahead, gaining power, climbing the ladder, and so forth, sometimes
without much regard for who or what is being stepped on in the process.
The record is pretty clear on that (and, hey, that is what politicians
do, right?). The Catholic Church in Chicago was a stepping stone years
ago, but the Catholic Church in the U.S., in recent years, has become a
big rock in the road to hope, change, and free contraceptives for the
cash-strapped women of America. A couple of months ago, Cardinal Raymond
Burke, prefect of the Vatican's Apostolic Signatura, directly addressed this conflict in a very frank interview with an Italian newspaper:
is true that the policies of the President of the United States of
America have become progressively more hostile toward Christian
civilization. He appears to be a totally secularized man who
aggressively promotes anti-life and anti-family policies. Now he wants
to restrict the exercise of the freedom of religion to freedom of
worship, that is, he holds that one is free to act according to his
conscience within the confines of his place of worship but that, once
the person leaves the place of worship, the government can constrain him
to act against his rightly-formed conscience, even in the most serious
of moral questions. Such policies would have been unimaginable in the
United States even 40 years ago. It is true that many faithful
Catholics, with strong and clear leadership from their Bishops and
priests, are reacting against the ever-growing religious persecution in
the U.S. Sadly, one has the impression that a large part of the
population is not fully aware of what is taking place. In a democracy,
such a lack of awareness is deadly. It leads to the loss of the freedom
which a democratic government exists to protect. It is my hope that more
and more of my fellow citizens, as they realize what is happening, will
insist on electing leaders who respect the truth of the moral law as it
is respected in the founding principles of our nation.
Two days ago, David Gibson valiently sought to provide a positive perspective on
the meeting, writing, "But Francis' election a year ago marked a sea
change in Rome's approach as the new pope repeatedly sought to emphasize
the church's dedication to social justice while moderating the church's
profile in the culture wars. It's a shift some say could portend a
'reset' for relations between the U.S. bishops and the Obama
administration." (It calls to mind Obama's 2009 statement regading
Putin: "I've said that we need to reset or reboot the relationship
there." From I understand, that hasn't gone well of late.) But even
Gibson had to admit, "The potential for a robust alliance fizzled almost
from the start of Obama's candidacy in 2007, and a relationship
[between Obama and the U.S. bishops] that began badly went downhill when
he was elected."
As for today's actual meeting between the
President and the Pope, the immediate details were sketchy. The Vatican
Press Office released the following statement:
morning, 27 March 2014, the Hon. Barack H. Obama, President of the
United States of America, was received in audience by His Holiness Pope
Francis, after which he met with His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin,
Secretary of State, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for
Relations with States.
During the cordial meetings, views were
exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in
areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and
international law and a negotiated solution between the parties
In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation
between Church and State, there was a discussion on questions of
particular relevance for the Church in that country, such as the
exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious
objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform. Finally, the
common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in
the world was stated.
As Stephen P. White notes,
that is nearly identical to the press release issued after the Obamas
met with Benedict XVI in 2009. It is par for the course. The fact is, whether
it be abortion, contraception, family, marriage, or religious freedom, the President has
not only been openly opposed to Catholic principles, he has been
antagonistic to them, often openly with little or no interest in
conversation or compromise.
Yet, in a just released White House statement (which
came out as I was writing this post), the POTUS said he told Francis
that he "pledged to continue to dialogue" with the bishops:
terms of the meeting with His Holiness, Pope Francis, we had a
wide-ranging discussion. I would say that the 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
And those of us as politicians have the task of
trying to come up with policies to address issues, but His Holiness has
the capacity to open people’s eyes and make sure they’re seeing that
this is an issue. And he’s discussed in the past I think the dangers of
indifference or cynicism when it comes to our ability to reach out to
those less fortunate or those locked out of opportunity.
the theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in
politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in
somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don't look
like you or talk like you or share your philosophy -- that that's
critical. It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to
plunge into wars. It's the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the
homeless on the streets. And obviously central to my Christian faith
is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me. And what’s I
think created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that
he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.
terms of domestic issues, the two issues that we touched on -- other
than the fact that I invited and urged him to come to the United States,
telling him that people would be overjoyed to see him -- was
immigration reform. And as someone who came from Latin America, I think
he is very mindful of the plight of so many immigrants who are
wonderful people, working hard, making contribution, many of their
children are U.S. citizens, and yet they still live in the shadows, in
many cases have been deported and are separated from families. I
described to him how I felt that there was still an opportunity for us
to make this right and get a law passed.
And he actually did not
touch in detail on the Affordable Care Act. In my meeting with the
Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, we discussed briefly the issue of
making sure that conscience and religious freedom was observed in the
context of applying the law. And I explained to him that most religious
organizations are entirely exempt. Religiously affiliated hospitals or
universities or NGOs simply have to attest that they have a religious
objection, in which case they are not required to provide contraception
although that employees of theirs who choose are able to obtain it
through the insurance company.
And I pledged to continue to
dialogue with the U.S. Conference of Bishops to make sure that we can
strike the right balance, making sure that not only everybody has health
care but families, and women in particular, are able to enjoy the kind
of health care coverage that the AC offers, but that religious freedom
is still observed.
This all sounds very nice. Of course,
Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor, among others, are
probably wondering why it is that so many groups and businesses have
been granted exemptions, and yet they remain emboiled in expensive court
cases that could well destroy them altogether. It ignores the glaring
fact that the Obama administration argued this week, in front of the Supreme Court, that for-profit companies basically have no religious rights under federal law! As Politico reported:
more than 90 minutes of arguments, several justices repeatedly
questioned why the administration couldn’t give for-profit companies
with religious objections the same kind of accommodation that has been
offered to religious nonprofits. Those organizations have been offered
the chance to opt-out of contraceptive coverage and have it provided
through their insurance company or administrator. ...
Kennedy expressed concern over how allowing an exemption to the
contraceptive requirement would impact the broader law and employees who
receive the coverage. However, he also raised the point that the
contraception provision is included in the mandatory coverage list
because of a regulation not because of what Congress wrote.
And Kennedy seemed troubled by the government’s view about for-profit companies lacking religious rights.
Well, goodhe should be troubled. There is plenty to be troubled about, as Jonathan Tobin notes for Commentary:
"President Obama has played fast and loose with his constitutional
obligations to enforce the laws of the land with unilateral decisions
that various aspects of the bill he signed into law could be postponed
Finally, the fact is, the POTUS and the Pope are
going in different directions, not only in terms of popularity, which
can come and go due to factors important and otherwise, but because in
so many cases, as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.
President Obama has a history of uttering lofty and mellifluous
speeches, but the proof is in the policy. Yes, of course Obama and
Francis smiled and play nice today; that's to be expected; that's how
these things go. But the current administration, in so many ways, is in
direct opposition to the principles and beliefs of the Catholic Church,
and has shown a willingness to use Catholics and the Church for its own
ends. It's what the young Obama seems to have done in Chicago in the
late '80s, and it hasn't really changed that much since.