As a president of the United States of America met a pope from the Americas for the first time this morning, we heard President Obama say to Pope Francis: “I am a great admirer.” My temptation, I confess, was to cynicism. I do hope — as an evangelical matter — that the president is drawn to what so many are: Pope Francis’s freedom, the liberation that comes with living for eternity. On the less-eternal front, the president meets with the pope at a time when he might want some of the popularity of the pope — long gone are the days since the president has been heralded on the likes of the cover of Time and Rolling Stone.
The pope – who is not unknown for exuberant embraces – seemed to display a fatherly concern in his body language as he greeted the president.
The optics of the meeting looked a little bit like the president was on a job interview. It was a good posture for learning from a teacher.
Many this morning are citing the New York Times this weekend going on about President Obama’s “Catholic roots.” There were a few problems with that piece. First, of all, of course, there was the missing cover story on the Little Sisters of the Poor. This morning, before dawn in the Northeast United States, as the pope met the president, an MSNBC host described the two as “champions of income equality.” Don’t tell me President Obama is a champion of income equality when the Little Sisters of the Poor – women religious who serve the elderly poor — are in court seeking the religious freedom that is our God-given right, and once a herald of our country.
And about his “Catholic roots.” (Some thoughts from the past on that and his Catholic cover here and here.) The shame of that piece is that it read like it was written more than a year ago. It missed the tremendous opportunity of this moment. Just as President Obama was about to be reelected – as two Catholic vice presidential candidates were saying very different things about both the faith and its implications and the implications of White House policy on religious freedom – I met Pope Benedict XVI as he hit the reset button. Fifty years after the start of the second Vatican Council, which was interpreted in divisive ways that helped no one, the pope emeritus instituted a year of faith, focusing on the creed – reintroducing what it is Catholics believe. I was there receiving a message to all the women of the world – mankind needs us! – that repeated a message Paul VI issued at the end of the Council. The more general message was clear: There are teachings and proposals that the world is missing! Let’s try again! We must try again. Little did we know that he would soon resign and usher in this fascinating moment where the world and even Barack Obama wants something of what this Pope Francis has. Which is not a winning political agenda, but an eternal one: Christ. He invites all — and implores Christians to, truly — to encounter Him.
The timing of today’s meeting, from a White House perspective, is brilliant, of course. The goal is to win the media week by taking attention away from the fact that some 300 plaintiffs are fighting for religious freedom against Obama-administration policy – as the whole of his signature legislation continues to appear a debacle. But a president who went to the University of Notre Dame during his first year as president and promised to respect conscience rights and subsequently accused Catholic bishops of bearing false witness as he campaigned to get people to look away as he trampled on the same through comprehensive legislation and regulation should not get off that easy.
More recently, Pope Francis greeted officials from Notre Dame talking about religious freedom, authenticity, and the missionary mandate of the Gospels. Key to understanding Pope Francis and the position of Catholics who are opposed to President Obama’s abortion-drug, contraception, sterilization mandate is understanding this. Christianity isn’t a private thing, permission to be merely personally opposed to evils. It’s evangelical, mandating an all-in. It’s a work in progress for those who believe, always, but it’s a radical surrender. It didn’t make headlines the way some other things did, but as he headed to the airport to return to Rome in Rio this summer, Pope Francis urged young people volunteering at World Youth Day to be countercultural. It may not be what the White House wants to hear, as it insists its ideology trumps freedom, even as it co-opts our very language – women, equality – as a mask. But don’t miss the story of Pope Francis, and don’t let any ideology succeed in co-opting him.
By the way (for those who don’t believe in coincidences): The pope’s tweet this morning was about conversion:
UPDATE: The pope presented the president with a copy of his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) during the meeting.