The Pope and the POTUS: Leaders headed in very different directions

Today’s meeting between Francis and Obama accentuated differences as much or more than it did similarities

How quickly things change. It wasn’t that many years ago that Barack Obama—as 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 2008—which in the Age of the Internet is roughly 259 years ago—the 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:

The 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 reality—in the form of daily governance and a dubious reworking of the nation’s healthcare system—set 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-wise—twice as popular, as The Daily Caller notes:

Pope 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.

Meanwhile 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 savio—er, celebrit—uh, 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.

The 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:

By 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.

In my words: if there are still people willing to buy the line that Obama is basically Catholic—in both spirit and principle—I 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:

This 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.

You 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 abortion—no, 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 Kurtz—one 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 Chicago foundations.

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:

It 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:

This 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 involved.

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:

 In 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 inequality.

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.

I think 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.

In 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:

During 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. …

[Justice] 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, good—he 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 or ignored.”

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. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.