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.
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.
MISSING THE SUBTLETIES
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.
Translated: No one pounded the table. Everyone agreed that international disputes should be settled legally and by negotiation, that immigration reform is desirable, and that human trafficking is very bad. The Holy See underscored that it was very concerned about the HHS mandate and its impact on the religious freedom of all, about the administration’s radical pro-abortion policies, and about the effects of all this on the civil and legal position of Americans of conscience.
Thus, the White House’s wish for a statement of “common ground” on economic questions went completely unrequited, and the word “inequality,” the White House mantra for two months, was not used — deliberately, one must assume. Perhaps most significantly, the Vatican communiqué, by highlighting the HHS mandate and related life and conscience issues, signaled that there was not a millimeter of distance on these questions between Pope Francis and the Holy See, on the one hand, and the bishops of the United States, on the other.
Taken together, the symbols and the words suggested that neither the pope nor his closest associates were interested in having the discussions of March 27 read with the White House spin.
OBAMA AND THE HHS MANDATE
Later in the day, in his joint press conference with Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, President Obama (who according to one observer of the scene seemed a bit distracted) stuck resolutely to the predictable talking-points: He and the pope discussed “growing inequality” in the world; immigration reform is an administration priority; “social schisms” hadn’t been discussed “a whole lot” in his exchange with Francis; the pope had urged the president to focus on youth unemployment; the administration’s policies “in many ways” follow, not just the pope’s lead, “but the teachings of Jesus Christ and other religions that care deeply about the least of these.” As for the HHS mandate, Obama conceded that this had come up in the conversation with Cardinal Parolin. The president then noted that he had “explained . . . that most religious organizations are entirely exempt. Religiously affiliated hospitals or universities or NGOs simply have to attest that they have a religious objection, in which case they are not required to provide contraception although employees of theirs who choose are able to obtain it through the insurance company.”
As Vatican officials were not interested in debating the Affordable Care Act, one can imagine that these explanations were received politely — but also with appropriate skepticism. For the Holy See had been well briefed on certain facts that do not fit very comfortably within the president’s description of the HHS mandate. Such as the fact that only a narrow category of churches, religious orders, and their “exclusively religious activities” is “entirely exempt” from the mandate (and even that exemption was only grudgingly conceded after a struggle between the administration and its critics). Or the fact that religious nonprofits object to the “accommodation” offered by the administration on the grounds that the attestation to which the president referred triggers the provision of the “services” they find morally objectionable (which is to say that the administration’s vaunted “accommodation” fixes nothing). Or the fact that the administration has shown unremitting hostility to the conscience rights and religious freedom of employers, as the solicitor general’s argument in the Supreme Court two days before the Obama/Francis meeting underscored.
In brief, the president of the United States is either remarkably ignorant of the facts involved in a dispute that has caused the greatest rift between the Catholic Church and the United States government in the nation’s history, or he was, to put it gently, spinning to the point of dissembling. This was not lost on senior Vatican officials.
A NOTEWORTHY PAPAL GIFT
As is customary on such occasions, the two principals exchanged gifts. Pope Francis’s gift to President Obama sent another message. The pope offered the president a copy of his 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), as if to say, “You and your people have been making a number of suggestions about who I am and what I’m about; here is who I really am, and here is the central theme of my pontificate: a call to the Church to consider itself in permanent mission, bringing the divine mercy to the world.” In thanking the pope, President Obama allowed as how he would read Evangelii Gaudium in the Oval Office in tough moments, perhaps to calm himself down or cheer himself up. One wonders whether these passages from Evangelii Gaudium would have precisely those effects:
. . . no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society. Who would claim to lock up in a church and silence the message of Saint Francis of Assisi or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta? They themselves would have found this unacceptable. An authentic faith — which is never comfortable or completely personal — always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it. 
Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual.” 
Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question [i.e., the right to life from conception until natural death]. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations.” It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. 
A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques. This would represent, in effect, a new form of discrimination and authoritarianism. 
On the evening of the day that Pope Francis gave Evangelii Gaudium to President Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, on receiving the Margaret Sanger Award from Planned Parenthood, described pro-life people as “dumb.” Once the president has read, marked, and inwardly digested the pope’s gift, perhaps he and Mrs. Pelosi can have a fruitful conversation in the Oval Office about paragraphs 213 and 214 of Evangelii Gaudium – and ponder just who is being “dumb” here: the pope, or those who insist on the radical inequality of the unborn members of the human community?
FRANCIS IN FULL
Close observers of Francis’s complex and fascinating pontificate have noted something else that is rarely reported: the pope’s insistence on the reality of Satan, which seems related to his multiple references to Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 dystopian novel, Lord of the World. The latter is not (cue gentle cough behind hand) great literature. But Benson, a Catholic priest and convert who was the son of the archbishop of Canterbury, did reintroduce to English letters the idea of the Antichrist, and did so in a very clever way. For like the Antichrist figure in Signorelli’s Last Judgment fresco cycle in the Orvieto cathedral, Benson’s Antichrist is an attractive man: intelligent, urbane, seemingly sympathetic to suffering, a mesmerizing public speaker. Yet beneath that attractive façade is a demonic figure obsessed with power and determined to cast the God of the Bible out of human affairs: a man who is an instrument of Satan, the great deceiver and, as Jorge Mario Bergoglio not infrequently refers to him, the “father of lies.”
Benson’s fictional dystopia is often regarded as an insightful preview of the mid-20th-century totalitarianisms. In an article written shortly after the Obama/Francis meeting, veteran Vaticanista Sandro Magister shed some light on what would seem to be Pope Francis’s conviction that Satan remains busily at work in the world after the collapse of Communism, now working through the seductive power of pleasure. According to Magister, Francis’s mentor in this reading of postmodern history and culture is the Uruguayan philosopher Albert Methol Ferré, who lived in Montevideo and died in 2009.
Methol Ferré frequently visited his friend the archbishop of nearby Buenos Aires, Bergoglio. And the two, it would seem, discussed Methol Ferré’s claim that, with the demise of the messianic atheism of Communism, a new form of death-dealing atheism had emerged. Methol Ferré dubbed it “libertine atheism” and explained that it involved the “cultivation of radical hedonism,” not by a revolutionary vanguard (as in Marxism-Leninism), but as a “mass phenomenon.”
The answer to this distortion of lives and culture, Methol Ferré argued in a 2007 interview, is to take what is the “deep kernel” of truth in a lethally distorted and false humanism — its “perception that existence has an intrinsic destination for enjoyment, that life itself is made for satisfaction” — and to recognize in that kernel a “buried need for beauty.” The Church, he continued, was the “only subject present on the stage of the contemporary world that can confront libertine atheism” with true beauty. But how?
By being a community of believers “capable of making the heart burn,” as Pope Francis has put it. By being in its own life a witness to beauty expressed in lives of compassion and charity exercised in the name of Christ. By being a church that offers the world an experience of the divine mercy and opens postmodernity to a possible encounter with the truths the divine mercy embodies — the truths that make for genuine human happiness, not for false simulacra of beauty.
None of this makes for sharp headlines or crunchy sound-bites. Very little of it fits into the conventional media narrative about Pope Francis, which befogged too much reporting about the March 27 meeting. Still, challenging as it is, Methol Ferré’s intriguing analysis of postmodernity and its discontents gets us much closer to the reality of Pope Francis, his sense of our times, and his grand strategy for the Church than Rolling Stone cover stories or White House spin doctors.
— 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.