Both Pope Francis and President Obama assumed their globally powerful positions with high popular approval. Now we learn that the two leaders will meet at the Vatican in late March as part of the President’s European trip.
The pope has captivated Catholics and non-Catholics alike with a new tone of openness, modesty, and tolerance. While Obama has had a complex and sometimes contentious relationship with the church, he now sees an opportunity to highlight common ground with the new pope.
Francis surprised many Catholics with his nonjudgmental tone on issues like homosexuality and divorce. In his first papal exhortation, the pontiff spoke about mercy and compassion, insisting on the dignity and blessedness of every person.
The pope and the president clearly differ on such issues as abortion, gay rights, and same-sex marriage. Without challenging core Church teachings on these issues, Francis suggested that Catholics stop obsessing about sex and focus more on economic issues.
Francis has often spoken about the poor and economic justice, criticizing “a deified market” in “an economy of exclusion and inequality.” In an oft quoted passage, he wrote, “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 two points?”
Obama has pledged to make the reduction of economic inequality a hallmark of his last three years in office. In his recent state of the union address, Obama spoke directly to this issue in policy terms. He insists that full time work should not mean poverty wages, that the minimum wage should be increased, and that the public and private sectors can collaborate on the creation of good jobs.
Obama has worked hard to promote comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship. Pope Francis seemed to echo these sentiments when he wrote, “Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity.”
In his first Christmas address, the pope called for global peace and an end to violence in Syria and parts of Africa. Obama’s state of the union noted U.S. actions to wind down the war in Afghanistan and eliminate Syrian chemical weapons and some of Iran’s nuclear stockpile.
While closing the door to female priests, Francis seeks a greater presence for women in traditional Catholic roles. Yet he continues the Pope Benedict-initiated investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious charged with espousing “radical feminist themes” and being insufficiently zealous against abortion and gay rights.
The Pope adopted his name from St. Francis of Assisi, known for his love of nature and the environment. He has urged his followers to respect the whole of creation and protect the environment. For his part, Obama has struggled, but with only limited success, to secure passage of legislation that reduces pollution and promotes clean energy.
The pontiff’s repeated denunciations of income inequality and his support for the poor and immigrants broadly overlaps the President’s second term agenda. Obama has also stated that Catholic social doctrines influenced his work as a community organizer and as president.
Since his elevation to the papacy in March of last year, the pope has taken strong political positions, often with a populist bent. Many have interpreted the Pope’s remarks as more socially and religiously liberal than his predecessors. Not all appreciate his deviations from traditional rhetoric: Rush Limbaugh calls the Pope a Marxist, and Fox News’ Adam Shaw refers to him as the Catholic Church’s Obama.
When Obama and Francis meet next month, we may catch a glimpse of how they interact with one another. More importantly, we may see whether they really are like-minded and potential allies in a crucial battle of ideas.
Ralph Scharnau teaches U. S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta. He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque. Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.