POTUS and the Pope
The Vatican’s symbolic messaging v. the White House spin


George Weigel

After two months of sometimes-fevered speculation about what-they-would-discuss, the March 27 meeting between Pope Francis and President Obama produced little in the way of hard news. It did, however, generate some confusion about just what happened. That confusion was instructive on several counts.

It was a reminder of just how poorly equipped most of the world media are to cover the Vatican and its ways — an incapacity that can often be blamed on the woeful state of Vatican communications, but not in this instance.

It illustrated how the story-line that much of the world press has created about Pope Francis impedes understanding this formidable man and his thinking: Forcing Jorge Mario Bergoglio onto the Procrustean bed of Global Grandpa from the Barrios misses a lot of what’s most interesting about the pope and his reading of our times.

And the meeting was a useful (if unnecessary) lesson in how, more than two years into the battle over Obamacare’s contraceptive/abortifacient mandate, the president continues to either misconstrue or misrepresent what is at stake in this argument.

Sorting through these instructive confusions in some detail is worth the effort, for what they tell us about both the trajectory of Francis’s pontificate and the last two and a half years of the Obama administration.

Catholicism is rich in symbols, and the habit of sending signals symbolically extends, sometimes, to the Holy See’s engagement with world leaders and world affairs. That was one of the dynamics of the Obama/Francis meeting, and more than a few of the symbolic messages were missed by the White House press corps.

The Holy See was entirely aware of the administration’s pre-meeting attempt to spin the post-meeting reporting. That pre-meeting spin took the form of repeating the agenda the White House defined in announcing the meeting on January 21: that the president looked forward to discussing with Francis their common concerns about economic inequality. Here, the White House was suggesting, was the “common ground” on which the two leaders would meet and agree — and here, as was obvious but unstated, was a theme the president and his supporters could deploy in this election cycle.

Now, to be sure, issues of poverty were discussed by the pope and the president, especially when the conversation was broadened to include the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin (the Vatican’s de facto prime minister), Archbishop Dominique Mamberti (the Vatican “foreign minister”), and U.S. secretary of state John Kerry. But that was certainly not all that was discussed; nor, one might reasonably conclude, was that the major part of what was discussed. Moreover, the discussion was organized and visually framed by the Holy See in ways that subtly suggested that, whatever the principals’ shared concerns about the underclass, “common ground” was not the central theme of this meeting — the Wall Street Journal’s inept March 28 headline (“Obama, Pope Francis Focus on Common Ground”) notwithstanding.

Pope Francis conducted his conversation with President Obama across a desk — a stage-setting exercise on the Vatican’s part that one canny media veteran thought “a tad aggressive” and another observer said resembled a school principal having a firm talk with a recalcitrant student. There was no attempt to embarrass here. But the arrangement nonetheless sent a signal, to the administration and to others: The Holy See was not interested in reinforcing the White House’s pre-meeting script, nor would it be interested in doing so for other public officials in the future.

Then there were the first photos released by the Holy See. Pope Francis is loath to be turned into a stage prop for politicians, and so he generally avoids offering photographers smiling shots when he is with heads of state or government. And while the photo used on the front page of the March 28 Washington Post showed Francis smiling at what appears to have been an Obama witticism, the first photo of the two men released by the Vatican offered a different image and message: a rather stern-looking pope beside a smiling president who seemed unaware of his conversation partner’s wish not to be used. The same was true of the official photo of the pope with the presidential party. Most of the Americans (including POTUS but not, instructively, Susan Rice) were cheerfully, almost blithely, grinning; Pope Francis, with guarded eyes and a flat expression, seemed discinclined to join the jollity.

In the life of the Catholic Church, however, symbols and words go together. And so it went on March 27, when the Vatican, operating with something approaching miraculous speed, put out a post-meeting communiqué striking for its terseness — and for what it did not state, much less highlight:

This morning, 27 March 2014, the Hon. Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, was received in audience by His Holiness Pope Francis, after which he met with His Eminence, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States.

During the cordial meetings, views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.

In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the Church in that country [i.e., the United States], such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life, and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform. Finally, the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated.