A week before the White House announcement that President Obama would meet Pope Francis at the Vatican during a presidential trip to Europe in late March, Secretary of State John Kerry had a lengthy meeting with Vatican secretary of state Pietro Parolin. According to Vatican sources with direct knowledge of what transpired, Parolin drove the entire conversation, emphasizing at some length the Holy See’s concerns over the Health and Human Services contraceptive/abortifacient mandate that has put the bishops of the United States, and many Catholic institutions, on a collision course with the government unparalleled in U.S. Catholic history.
None of that, of course, was discussed by Secretary Kerry in his subsequent remarks to the press, which focused on a future meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis.
The Holy See and the pope are quite aware of what’s afoot here. Cautions and suspicions nurtured by a long experience of politicians trying to conscript the Vatican and the Supreme Pontiff for their own purposes have been reinforced by the input the pope and his closest associates have received from various sources — including Vatican representatives at international institutions who have been contesting aspects of the administration’s foreign policy for six years. So while it is obvious that President Obama and Pope Francis will discuss problems of world poverty, and just as obvious that the White House will harp on the word “inequality” in its briefings and press releases on the meeting, there will certainly be other things on the mind of Pope Francis, Cardinal Parolin, and other senior Vatican officials when they meet with the president, the secretary of state, and other administration officials.
The pope and his associates are quite aware that the administration is not above trying to drive a wedge between the U.S. bishops and the Vatican on the HHS-mandate question; and however the White House, certain Catholics, and some journalists spin the post-meeting story, it can be reasonably assumed that the pope and his senior officials have no intention of creating any such daylight for the administration to exploit. Pope Francis has spoken with considerable vigor about the importance of national bishops’ conferences in the life of the Church. It seems very unlikely that he would deliberately undercut the work of the bishops’ conference that has done the most to bring Catholic social teaching to bear on public policy, and has done so in a genuinely dialogical, not authoritarian, way — the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Pope Francis is neither economist nor politician, as he has said. He is, above all, a pastor, who approaches every encounter with a pastor’s eye and heart. He knows that American bishops have tried to reach the president as pastors — pastors with grave concerns about how his administration’s policies impede their work — and that those approaches have failed. He will, surely, try to reach the president as a pastor, not as another player contesting with the principalities and powers on a global political chessboard. But that approach will be informed by his knowledge of how his American brother-bishops have tried to bring what is closest to their pastors’ hearts to the president’s attention, without success.
There is a surprising amount of skepticism about this papal-presidential encounter in much of the Roman press corps. In November 2008, the huge magazine kiosk near Rome’s Largo Argentina tram stop was filled with journals from all over the world, the vast majority of their covers displaying messianic portraits of Barack Obama, looking out into the empyrean as if reflecting on his descent from a higher plane of existence. The bloom is very much off that rose, especially among the Anglophone scribes in the city, whatever their tendency to fall into White House spin traps on occasion. And while the Italian press can be counted on to dramatize anything, one senses very little giddiness in the rest of their colleagues as they await President Obama’s second visit to the Vatican. Messianic hopes, frustrated, tend to lead to dampened expectations.
None of this will be reflected in White House spin on pope-meets-president, any more than Cardinal Parolin’s firm talk with John Kerry about religious freedom in America was reflected in the State Department’s comments on that encounter. That script has already been written, for a play whose story-line was determined by the White House political managers months ago. What remains to be seen is whether Pope Francis, who combines winsomeness and steel in a unique personality, will be able to convey to President Obama that he, the president, is placing unnecessary impediments in the way of the pope’s agenda for the reform of the Church.
It should prove an interesting conversation, although the full details of it are not likely to become clear for some time.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.