What Obama’s Meeting With The Pope Means — Minus The Hype


President Barack Obama visited Pope Francis this Thursday, his first face-to-face meeting with the wildly popular pontiff since the Argentinian Jesuit was named the head of the Catholic church a little over a year ago.

Although the specifics of the conversation between President Obama and Pope Francis are somewhat vague, several other writers have already weighed in on the much-discussed meeting, highlighting the potential gains for the President should he find a way to tap into the so-called “Francis effect.” They argue that the platform created by the pope’s soaring popularity could help showcase the commonality between Obama’s new slate of progressive economic proposals, such as raising the federal minimum wage, and Francis’ unabashed opposition to “trickle-down economics.” Still others have attempted to cast the meeting as a boon to American conservatives, especially in light of recent comments made by the Vatican’s Chief Justice saying that Obama’s policies — particularly the contraception requirement of the Affordable Care Act — “have become progressively more hostile toward Christian civilization.”

But for all the attention given to the meeting, the political value of a papal blessing for a specific American policy position — be it literal or figurative — is overhyped, especially among conservatives.

Pope Francis has become a sort of uniting force in Washington, D.C. recently, with Republicans, Democrats, climate change advocates, immigration activists, and even the President himself attempting to win the church leader’s favor in the lead up to the meeting. These overtures are rooted in the knowledge that the Catholic Church is an undeniably powerful political force. With thousands of Catholic organizations situated all over the world and billions of dollars at the Vatican’s disposal, Catholic bishops regularly use their capital to influence governments — including here in the United States. Thus, when popes bring the full resources of the Catholic church to bear in support of U.S. policies, it can trigger significant domestic and even global change, such as when President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II agreed to unite efforts to fight Communism in Eastern Europe.


However, Vatican officials made it clear earlier this week that despite Francis and Obama’s common pursuit of economic justice, their meeting probably wouldn’t result in a world-changing pontiff-president agreement. As one senior Vatican put it, “We’re not in the old days of the great alliance.” Instead, Vatican officials hinted that Francis might bring up the recent disagreement between the Catholic bishops and the United States government over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception requirement.

So while a grand collaboration between Obama and the pope might be out of the question, do the Vatican justice’s comments mean that conservatives could somehow leverage Francis’ popularity to give voice to opposition to contraception and marriage equality? After all, a recent survey by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute found that Pope Francis is literally more popular with Americans than the President and Congress combined. Still, widespread love for Francis isn’t likely to translate into conservative policy shifts here in the United States. The Vatican justice’s words were strong, but Francis has already made it clear that he thinks the church is too “obsessed” with the conversation around abortion and same-sex marriage. In addition, American Catholicism is a divided group both racially and ideologically, and while the faithful have clearly been inspired by the new pope — recent surveys show his more progressive stances on economics and LGBT people have reportedly increased giving to Catholic churches and charities — polls still show that the majority of U.S. Catholics remain staunchly opposed to the doggedly conservative stances of the U.S. Catholic bishops on contraception and marriage equality.

Furthermore, despite the misconception that the pope’s proclamations demand compliance from all Catholics, believers are actually guaranteed freedom of conscience — especially when his positions contradict the laws of their native countries. In fact, Catholics for Choice, a progressive Catholic organization, took out a full-page ad in today’s International New York Times to remind President Obama of precisely that point.

“[T]he [Catholic] Church’s own Declaration on Religious Freedom says that Catholics must respect the beliefs of people of other faiths and avoid ‘any hint of coercion’ in spreading their religious faith or practices,” the ad read. “The US bishops have ignored these teachings on many occasions, most recently in their assault on the contraceptive requirement in the Affordable Care Act, a piece of legislation close to your heart.”

Ultimately, the effectiveness of a papal endorsement is a bit of a guessing game. Still, it would appear that while a formal blessing to American conservatives unlikely, a thumbs-up from Francis for Obama’s economic policies — not to mention climate change and immigration reform — could be beneficial to progressives, albeit as more of a “Francis bump” than a “Francis effect.”