Praising the Pope for his writings on climate change this morning, President Obama said the following:
Your Holiness, in your words and deeds, you set a profound moral example. And in these gentle but firm reminders of our obligations to God and to one another, you are shaking us out of complacency. All of us may, at times, experience discomfort when we contemplate the distance between how we lead our daily lives and what we know to be true and right. But I believe such discomfort is a blessing, for it points to something better. You shake our conscience from slumber; you call on us to rejoice in Good News, and give us confidence that we can come together, in humility and service, and pursue a world that is more loving, more just, and more free. Here at home and around the world, may our generation heed your call to ‘never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope!
Okay. But here’s the thing: Obama isn’t actually being “reminded” or “shaken out of” anything, and nor for that matter is his “conscience” being awoken. As he has made clear for seven years now, he already agrees with the Pope on climate change, and, as such, has to sacrifice precisely nothing in order to bring himself into line with his position. There was no struggle or “discomfort” on display at the presidential dais; there was only rhetorical ease and the pleasure of holiness by association. Indeed, what Obama really meant is that his opponents need to be reminded and shaken and awoken and made uncomfortable. If that’s what he believes, that’s fine. But let’s cut the “us” and the “we.” Obama already considers himself to be on the side of the angels here. What does he need Francis for?
Obama’s willingness to embrace the Pope’s “profound moral example” seems to be rather limited in scope. If the president were earnestly hoping to better himself by observing the “gentle but firm reminders of our obligations to God and to one another”; if he were genuinely looking to be made uncomfortable in his complacency; if he were truly aiming to see his conscience shaken out of slumber, he would also thank Francis for his teaching on abortion or marriage or homosexuality or religious liberty. He didn’t. As a non-Catholic I obviously have no problem with Obama’s disagreeing with the Church. But it does ring a touch hollow to stand there and invoke all of the man’s moral authority on one supposedly pressing question, but to ignore it completely when it doesn’t suit. That’s not courage, it’s editing.