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.”
In some ways, Francis is the pope Obama has waited for. And many Americans seem to feel the same way. Pope Francis has an 88 personal approval rating among American adults. He was named Person of the Year in 2013 not only by Time, but also by The Advocate, a major LGBT publication. Some claim we are beginning to see a “Francis effect,” a revitalization of Catholicism in the United States due to Francis’s popularity.
Yet for a leader who has had such an impact on so many Americans and served as the subject of so much speculation, Pope Francis has not spoken directly to the American situation. American politicians, journalists, and everyday Americans have been free to translate his words to an American context, often according to their own prejudices and preferences. When the pope speaks of poverty, is he making the case for a raise to the federal minimum wage or for increased foreign aid? When he speaks of religious freedom, is he speaking to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or to Iran? Is he speaking to both?
Finally, Pope Francis will have the opportunity to address Americans directly. Partisans are primed to take his words as a political endorsement. Liberal and conservative Catholics are holding their breath, hoping the pope will confirm their version of him. They are likely to be disappointed. This pope often finds a way to transcend these ideological differences, not by staying above them but by refusing to depersonalize the personal. This is at the heart of some of the pope’s most well-known statements. When he was asked about church bureaucracy, and what reforms he thought were necessary, he replied that “the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. He also said that “the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all” who take “responsibility of the person.” When asked about homosexuality, he reminded Catholics that they “must always consider the person.” While political observers will look for Pope Francis to affirm a political stance this Thursday, he is likely to use the opportunity to point toward faith, toward humility, toward Jesus.
The average American will be looking for meaning in this meeting in a different way. Their primary interest will not be in what the pope thinks about the latest political back-and-forth or even about the state of the Catholic Church in America. Many Americans feel rudderless. Their worldview is confused and incoherent as they try to reconcile high-minded ideals with the practical choices they face every day. In this era of division—a divided media and a divided politics—the number of leaders with the moral authority and willingness to help Americans answer the big questions is dwindling. Is our country becoming more good or less good? What should most concern us? What is worth fighting for? Hoping for? Where are we headed, and do we need a course correction?
On the South Side of Chicago, a young, promising community organizer met the Church. Through that experience, the meaning of his life became clear, and he was set on a trajectory that would lead him to become the president of the United States. Twenty-five years later, as Barack Obama meets the Church again, we should look for meaning in the deeper things. Perhaps for a brief moment, these two men who are so constantly pressured by the requirements of leadership to focus on whatever is most immediate and pressing, will humble themselves enough to look out to the horizon, to the future, perhaps even to the heavens, and to help us lift our eyes there as well.