Meeting between Pope Francis and President Obama has promise, carries risk, advisers say


Pope Francis is scheduled to meet with President and Michelle Obama when they travel to Europe next week. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

Meetings between popes and presidents have often been seen as photo opportunities, but people who have advised President Obama on faith issues say his get-together next week with Pope Francis will involve other high-level officials and probably concrete talks about how to boost the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and ease extreme poverty.

It’s possible, the advisers say, that the U.S. embargo of Cuba and the condition of immigrants in the United States could also arise in the conversation between Obama and the church’s first Latin American pope.

The White House announced in January that Obama would meet Francis during a European trip. Both the president and Michelle Obama will be there, as well as Secretary of State John F. Kerry and national security adviser Susan E. Rice.

While there’s a clear appeal to being seen with the planet’s most popular pastor, experts say the trip isn’t without risks for the president. Francis is likely to raise concerns about war and poverty, areas where the Argentine Jesuit appears to favor more left-leaning solutions than does the White House.

“Francis is capable of putting some direct leads in front of Obama [about focusing on the poor], and that will require something more than the obligatory response, ‘It’s nice to hear you,’ ” said one Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House wants all information about the trip to run through its communications office. “My guess is the pope would like to see much more explicit work on behalf of the poor. Obama can point to what he’s done. It is certainly not a full alignment.”

Obama has made a point recently of aligning himself with Francis, with the White House saying the two have a “shared commitment to fighting . . . growing inequality.” The meeting will be Francis’s first chance to be more specific with Americans about how he feels their country affects that inequality.

Generally, however, Vatican-watchers saw huge potential in the meeting between the president, who has focused often on poverty, and the pope, who publicly pined upon his election for “a church that is poor and for the poor.”

“Some said that under [Pope John Paul II] and [President Ronald Reagan] there was a meeting of the minds, and it’s potentially true again under Obama and Francis around the issues of social justice,” said Miguel Diaz, a Catholic theologian who served as Obama’s ambassador to the Vatican from 2009 until 2012. “This is the first African American president and the first Latin American pope, a man who has chosen the name of Francis [after a saint who chose poverty over wealth] and a president who has a history of issues related to social justice like universal health care. I think there are a lot of convergences around these two world figures. . . . I think these two men want to meet each other.”

The State Department and the office of the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican referred questions about the trip to the White House, where officials said they would not be able to comment in time for this article.

Advisers to the White House on faith-based issues, including ones involving the Catholic Church, said the two may discuss topics such as the U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the pope’s May visit to the Holy Land, the U.S. embargo of Cuba, Syria and the plight of religious minorities around the world.

Some prominent U.S. Catholic conservatives — including bishops — have spoken out strongly against the part of the Affordable Care Act that mandates contraception coverage and have characterized Obama as an opponent of the church and of religious freedom. But most Vatican-watchers predicted that the pope would not speak directly about the mandate to Obama when the two men meet alone, although it’s possible that the topic of domestic religious freedom could come up when other Vatican officials meet with U.S. leaders.

The meeting between the president and the pope “should be a warm and personal, pastoral discussion,” said one adviser to the administration on the Catholic Church, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to be seen as speaking on the matter before White House officials.

Some advisers said the trip would be only positive for Obama for several reasons.

First is Francis’s obvious global popularity. Second, appearing with a pope who spoke sharply against the United States even exploring military intervention in Syria and calls economic “trickle-down theories” unproven might make the president appear more moderate in comparison and help Obama with critics who consider him a radical leftist. It also could shore up his standing with U.S. Catholics, half of whom voted for the president in 2012 (down from 53 percent in 2008).

Michael Sean Winters, who covers the church for the National Catholic Reporter, said the two men may find connection in having the same opponents.

Francis “knows that there is a conservative narrative that contains the pope and the president in a very negative light. So their criticisms of Obama are taken with a grain of salt,” Winters said.

Others who have advised the White House said that there may be discussion of immigration and that the meeting with the Argentine will generally bring attention to the fact that the U.S. Catholic Church is quickly turning Latino. The majority of American Catholics younger than 35 are Latino, and new research by a major Catholic fundraising umbrella group found that Latino Catholics are becoming more involved in institutional giving in the United States (compared with sending money home). U.S. bishops are scheduled to make an unusually prominent visit March 30 to the U.S.-Mexico border and celebrate Mass there, and they noted in announcing the trip that Francis’s first travel as pope was to the Italian island of Lampedusa to remember African migrants who died trying to reach Europe.

The U.S.-Mexico border is our Lampedusa,” the bishops said in the statement announcing their trip.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has urged Republicans to work with Obama on immigration, and Boehner, who is Catholic, invited Francis to speak to Congress if he comes to the United States next year.

The trip could pump energy into immigration reform, experts on the Vatican and Obama said. “The pope is highly conscious of the fact that millions of Hispanics are here without citizenship, and most are Catholic,” said the Democratic strategist who has advised the White House.

“The majority of young Catholics in this country are Latinos, and they will see their president, who they voted for in large numbers, meet their Latin American pope,” Diaz said. “This cannot but be a good day for Latino Catholics.”

Unknown is how the two men will highlight extreme poverty without emphasizing their different views of how to ease it, and how the pope will speak about the U.S. role.

Free markets have created more firmly set winners and losers, and a “globalization of indifference . . . a culture of prosperity deadens us,” Francis wrote in a major paper in late November. He argued that wealth’s purpose must be to help the poor. Similarly, as the United States contemplated military action in Syria, the pope called for a fast and said, “Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake.”

“Pope Francis is likely to be much less supportive of the U.S. role in the world as a global superpower than were popes John Paul and Benedict, by virtue of [the two former popes’] backgrounds and experiences,” said Stephen Schneck, head of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University and an adviser on Catholics to the 2012 Obama campaign. “And even more so in regards to the use of American military force abroad. I’m not suggesting there is any antipathy, but, given his background, the pope will be more wary about the U.S. role in the world.”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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