For the past year, no two living people have had their every utterance parsed for meaning as thoroughly and consistently as President Obama and Pope Francis. This search for meaning will continue Thursday, when Obama makes his second visit as president to the Vatican.
Like any between two powerful heads of state, the meeting is important, but focusing on policy and statecraft risks overlooking key dimensions of this meeting. For the president, the pope, and the American people, this meeting has farther-reaching importance.
The policy implications of the meeting are broad and include a range of issues—from climate change and immigration reform to the Syrian crisis and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice will both join Obama. The men have several shared policy priorities. The president has invoked Francis’s statements on income inequality, one of the signature issues of his second term, and the administration has also worked with the Vatican on the fight against global poverty. Ken Hackett, the American ambassador to the Holy See, is the former CEO of Catholic Relief Services and one of the nation’s foremost experts on international development.
The symbolic ties between them run deep too. Obama shares with Pope Francis a capacity to use words and symbols to spur movements and capture the public’s imagination. Both men understand that a leader’s significance can come not only from what he does, but from what he represents. The president discussed this at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, telling the audience that he was “especially looking forward “ to meeting the pontiff, “whose message about caring for the ‘least of these’ is one that I hope all of us heed ... [Francis] inspires us with his words and deeds, his humility, his mercy, and his missionary impulse to serve the cause of social justice.”
While many Americans know the president worked a community organizer, few know that his salary was paid for by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. As he has said publicly, and as I’ve heard him relate in more private settings many times, it was during that time that he began to understand the role that faith can play not just in the strengthening of communities but in personal lives. His rise in politics was in Chicago, a city with deep Catholic roots where an understanding of the Catholic worldview is helpful, if not necessary, for political success. But he was not merely an observer. In his words:
The call to fix what was broken in our world, a call rooted in faith, is what led me just a few years out of college to sign up as a community organizer for a group of churches on the South Side of Chicago. And it was through that experience working with pastors and laypeople trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my lord and savior.
Though he is not Catholic, the Church is important and personal to him. And though he is appropriately reticent to make public judgments about Catholic doctrine, it’s clear he values the social justice tradition of the Church that played such a critical role in the transformation of his own life.
In an interview with Catholic journalists prior to his 2009 trip to meet Pope Benedict, Obama spoke of his respect for Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who was archbishop in Chicago during his time as a community organizer and who showed him “the potential the bishops have to speak out forcefully on issues of social justice.” He continued to reflect on Bernardin’s teaching of the “seamless garment” on life issues: Bernardin didn’t abandon his pro-life views, but spoke on “a range of issues that were part and parcel of what he considered to be pro-life” including poverty and the death penalty. “And that part of the Catholic tradition is something that continues to inspire me,” Obama said. “And I think that there have been times over the last decade or two where that more holistic tradition feels like it’s gotten buried under the abortion debate.”