This week’s meeting between Pope Francis and President Obama holds great promise in a time of turmoil, though not necessarily in the ways some may hope.
In anticipation of the meeting, everyone seems to want a piece of the pope. The head of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good posted a petition on the White House’s “We the People” Web site making a religious case for action on climate change.
Activists pushing for immigration reform are seeking an audience with Pope Francis the day before he meets with Obama. The president has said he wants to discuss his own agenda of tackling poverty and income inequality, the focus of the pope’s ministry.
None of these issues can be characterized as hard sells to the leader of the Catholic Church, a man who has eschewed the papal palace for more modest accommodations and who strolls the streets of Rome in sensible shoes, who said we have a duty to protect God’s creation and who is, by the way, South American.
Thus, getting the pope to voice concern about poverty, immigration and environmental conservatism is not likely to require much sweat in the exercise of persuasive powers. Getting to how one accomplishes such things through policy isn’t in the pope’s wheelhouse. Getting people to examine their own souls is something else.
When the pope and the president look into each other’s eyes, they may not see each other’s souls, but we know that one of them will be focused intently on its discovery. What happens next is known to no one. But it is inconceivable that the president will not be moved in the presence of such grace. Equally likely is that Pope Francis will discover the pilgrim in Obama.
The rest of the world will see what it needs.
In the United States, both left and right have projected onto the pope the image they wish to see — that is, a reflection of themselves — rather than the man he truly is. My own observations are gleaned not from a crystal ball but from many conversations with people close to the Vatican and from each man’s actions. From these we may infer the verities each holds dear.
We know our president well enough at this point, but our view of the pope has been only a partial image conveyed by commentaries and cameras. He is the pontiff who pats a stray boy’s head when the child tries to keep the pope’s attention to himself. He’s the leader who wants the church to focus less harshly on the social issues that divide. He is the most unusual pope who organizes a fast and leads a peace vigil opposing U.S. military action in Syria.
And he is the one who asks, “Who am I to judge?” on the subject of gay rights.
He is beloved because he makes us feel good, pointing us in the direction of our better angels. But he is also human and we should not infer that because he is benevolent he is also benign. This would be to misunderstand and underestimate him. In his daily homilies, Pope Francis talks frequently about the struggle between good and evil. He quotes from Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel “Lord of the World,” a story of the anti-Christ.
His earthly concerns may be the least of these, but his primary business is souls.
He is also a cagey, worldly wise Jesuit — keenly aware of human nature and motivations. In other words, he knows full well that he is the object of a presidential photo-op. But the man whose kind smile reminds us all that we were children once will play his part because, let’s face it, he’s the pope. His smile for the camera may be interpreted as pleasure with present company, but more likely it will be for the good it might do.
Beneath that kind countenance is a sharp mind well versed in the conflicts between his church and this president. For certain, he will have been thoroughly briefed on the several dozen lawsuits against the Obama administration related to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.
Obviously, not all Americans see the point in all the fuss about contraception, to the extent they care about it at all. The principles in dispute may seem esoteric, but at the end of the day, yes, the Pope is Catholic. And though he may bless our president and beam that knowing smile, his prayer for humanity’s salvation has no political party affiliation and should be construed by none as such.