One man stepped into his new role promising change but has struggled to deliver it; the other, considered a “safe” choice by the men who elected him, turned out to be an effortless instigator of change from the moment he stepped out onto a Vatican balcony, greeting the world with a humble request for its blessing and overturning expectations from the start. One is the first African American to lead the United States, the other is the first Latin American to lead the universal church. One found his first and only job with the Jesuits; the other cashed his first paycheck courtesy of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
On March 27 President Obama will get to meet Pope Francis, a man Obama has acknowledged as a source of personal inspiration, just as he is to 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.
Both men are obviously powerful figures on the world stage, and during the pope’s remarkable first year, the paths of the pope and the president have crossed on several occasions, at times complementing, at others, clashing.
The president will likely seize on his meeting with the pope to press his case domestically on issues of economic inequality and mitigating poverty, concerns that President Obama shares with the universally popular pontiff at a time when his popularity has been flagging at home. The last time Obama was in Rome to meet a pope, he was greeted by a complimentary Benedict in a mostly cordial visit that was interrupted only briefly by instruction in Christian ethics on abortion and biomedical research.
The president has reason to believe that this upcoming visit with Francis should go even better. The pope has registered his sense that the church’s teaching on abortion and other regular enlistees in U.S. culture wars is already plain; he is interested in bringing global attention to other areas of concern to the church like promoting human dignity and fighting global poverty, battling “the globalization of indifference” and the idolatry of markets. The president will be only too happy to join with him on issues of mutual concern. All the same he can expect to hear something about life issues, including abortion, and particularly an expression of support for the U.S. bishops’ campaign on religious freedom.
Pope Francis has returned frequently during his remarkable first year in Rome to the suffering of the world’s sojourners. In one of his first major acts, Pope Francis visited the Sicilian island of Lampedusa where he celebrated his first Mass outside the Vatican. On Lampedusa each year thousands of migrants from Africa, Asia and increasingly from Middle Eastern outposts of uncertainty Syria and Egypt, make a landfall in a desperate effort to find a better life for themselves and their children. An unknown number die in African deserts or Mediterranean seas on the way. Pope Francis personally brought world attention to this problem, and indeed to a similar problem of migrant deaths along the border which the U.S. Catholic bishops now describe as “our Lampedusa,” the southwest deserts of the United States where uncounted numbers of Central American and Mexican migrants die each year. The president will no doubt be happy to seek a papal blessing for comprehensive immigration reform now stalled in Congress.
President Obama may also prove willing to join the pope in his attention to the world’s victims of economic “exclusion,” although it is not likely that Obama will speak as directly as the Latin American pope on the failures of capitalism and the illusory promises of trickle down economics. In “Evangelii Guadium,” Pope Francis wrote: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape….” Just the kind of rhetorical appeal the president might find effective to make at home in his current campaigns to recover overtime pay for “supervisory” staff and hike a federal minimum wage that has not budged in years and now suffers its lowest buying power in decades.
But the two leaders have also faced areas of tension on the geopolitical stage. The pope and the president memorably locked horns over peacemaking in Syria.
The use of chemical weapons against civilians had been a redline that the Assad regime stomped across in a number of attacks culminating with a widespread chemical weapons assault on a Damascus suburb that was captured for the horrified world to see on YouTube videos. When the American president expressed a readiness to pummel Syrian air force and army positions with U.S. missiles, Pope Francis contributed dramatically to a rising tide of world opinion against a hasty U.S. response, one that quickly swept across the United States and the U.S. Congress. In September, Francis called for a day of fasting and prayer in resistance to what he worried would prove a dramatic escalation in the crisis. “I tell you that those terrible images from recent days are burned into my mind and heart," Francis said, referring to the video of men, women and small children suffering and dying from exposure to chemical munitions. "There is a judgment of God and of history upon our actions which is inescapable!”
But, Francis added, ”Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake” and, his voice rising, "War begets war, violence begets violence.” After an inadvertent comment from Secretary of State John Kerry led to an actual Russian initiative to remove chemical weapons from the theater of conflict, President Obama “blinked” on Syria and the threatened punishment never came to pass.
Whether or not the Francis effect in Syria will prove an actual service to peace will have to be left to history to decide. In the months since Obama passed up on the opportunity to “punish” the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons, the civil conflict has ground on, consuming ancient historical sites, whole Syrian communities and thousands of more lives. There appears little likelihood that the Assad regime, flush with incremental victories on Syria’s stubborn warfront, will settle now for a negotiated end to the fighting and there is even reason to believe it has again resorted to the use of chemical weapons against opposition forces and the civilians unfortunate enough to be hunkered down with them.
The president and the pope, however, will likely have a few more opportunities to work together on the geopolitical stage. Both will be called upon to respond to the imperial impulses of the Russian restorationist Vladimir Putin. Just days after the “heroic return” of Crimea to Russia, reports are surfacing of threats and harassment of Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergy. Protecting a church that had for decades been persecuted by a different regime in Moscow from a new Russian boss lurking on the borders of Ukraine will be a historic and precarious project that will require the joint talents and energy of these two unprecedented world leaders. The continuing violence and chaos in South Sudan and the Central African Republic should likewise prove an area of mutual concern.