What to look for in the Obama-Francis summit

(RNS) The news that President Obama will meet with Pope Francis on March 27 brightened a snowy Tuesday morning for Catholics who see a broad overlap between the president’s agenda and the pontiff’s repeated denunciations of income inequality and “trickle down” economics, and his support for the poor and migrants. Other Catholics, especially conservatives already unsettled by Francis’ new approach, hoped that the pope would use the encounter at the Vatican to wag a finger at Obama over the president’s support for abortion rights and gay marriage. So what will the two leaders talk about? What issues will they avoid? With Francis, anything is possible, but here are some initial ideas on how the summit could play out:
Illustration of Pope Francis in a style inspired by Shepard Fairey. Original photo by Andrea Andrea Sabbadini/RNS,

Illustration of Pope Francis in a style inspired by Shepard Fairey. Original photo by Andrea Sabbadini/RNS. illustration created through obamapostermaker.com

This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Poverty and the wealth gap

Roman Catholics call it social justice. American politicians call it a campaign slogan. Whichever tagline you prefer, poverty has become a favorite new buzzword inside the Beltway, in part thanks to Francis’ popularity and his repeated desire to have “a poor church for the poor.” Expect Obama to highlight his common ground with Francis in this area. He’s already done that twice: telling an interviewer in October that he was “hugely impressed” with the pope’s “incredible empathy to the least of these,” and quoting Francis last month in a speech on income inequality. In announcing the visit, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama “looks forward to discussing with Pope Francis their shared commitment to fighting poverty and growing inequality.”

A truce in the culture war?

Pope Francis will certainly bring up the church’s opposition to abortion, a distinct contrast with Obama’s strong support for abortion rights. And the pope will likely mention the U.S. bishops’ long-running fight with the administration over the contraception insurance mandate. Yet social conservatives are always hoping for a tongue-lashing, and popes always disappoint them by not taking presidents to the Vatican woodshed. When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met his Vatican counterpart, Cardinal-designate Pietro Parolin, earlier this month, Parolin touched on the birth control issue but did not make it a focus of the 90-minute discussions, which were praised by the Vatican as “positive” and “constructive.” Whatever Francis says to the president, some already suspect that Obama will find a way to spin the talks away from abortion. As blogger Rocco Palmo tweeted when news of the meeting broke just ahead of the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion: “Rather curious that White House announces Francis-Obama meeting hours before March for Life events begin, no?”

Finding “common ground”

Obama is a Protestant who has often cited the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin as an inspiration — a “common ground” model for an engaged and active community-based life that forges alliances where possible and uses dialogue to deal with the tensions of contrasting views. Francis seems to take that approach as well, and he also appears to echo Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life” ideas, which see issues such as abortion and euthanasia not as stand-alone markers of Catholic identity but as integral parts of the church’s wider, womb-to-tomb approach to life that encompasses the poor and immigrants. A good example of Francis’ “global” view was his speech this month to diplomats accredited to the Holy See. The pontiff cited a host of urgent issues, including  immigration, the environment, poverty and hunger. Francis mentioned abortion (though not gay marriage), but he did so in the context of many other topics.

Peace in the Middle East

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with the Vatican Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, on Tuesday (Jan. 14). Photo courtesy of U.S. State Department

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with the Vatican secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, on Tuesday (Jan. 14). Photo courtesy of U.S. State Department

This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Kerry’s talks with Parolin this month focused on peace in the Middle East, and Francis is also likely to spend a lot of time with the president discussing ways to halt the brutal civil war in Syria. Francis has made that a priority, and he will be meeting with Obama two months before Francis makes his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The Vatican and Washington were at odds a year ago when Obama was threatening a military strike against the Syrian regime and Francis rallied international protests against armed intervention. The military threats — or the papal prayer vigil — led Damascus to agree to give up its chemical arms, and now the pontiff and the president are on the same page in pushing for a peace settlement.

An invitation — and an RSVP?

Obama is sure to issue an invitation to Francis to visit the U.S., and specifically the White House. While Francis has been less inclined to be a globe-trotter in the mold of his predecessor, John Paul II (or even Benedict XVI), there’s a good chance Francis could visit the U.S. for the September 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Before he resigned last year, Benedict said he would like to come for that event, and Francis could certainly work in a visit to the nation’s capital nearby and maybe to New York; Cardinal Timothy Dolan and the city’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, are already lobbying for a Big Apple papal visit.

Controversy non grata

One topic the two men surely won’t discuss will be the State Department’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See to new quarters inside the compound of the American Embassy to Italy. News of the move late last year infuriated a number of Republicans, but the move was made for security reasons, and it actually upgraded the quality of the Vatican embassy while saving $1.4 million annually and putting the ambassador’s office a bit closer to the Vatican. Given Francis’ disregard for protocol, and his focus on spending money on the poor instead of on pomp, Obama could pledge to give the savings to charity and he’d have an instant fan.

Pope and change?

The pontiff could even give the president some political advice. “I would have made a good pope,” Richard Nixon is rumored to have mused. The tale is probably apocryphal, but it underscores how much presidents can get bogged down by the kinds of checks and balances pontiffs don’t have to face. Yet as Obama confronts Republican resistance on Capitol Hill, Francis is also facing strong headwinds from church conservatives and from the infamously sclerotic papal bureaucracy, the Roman Curia. He’s had to use the power of his message — and his considerable popularity — as much as his authority to try to turn around the Vatican. “Obama would be wise to talk politics with Francis,” Notre Dame’s Candida Moss wrote in Politico. “He might be able to pick up a few pointers.”  

9 Responses to “What to look for in the Obama-Francis summit”

  1. jules of Holy Toledo

    “Perhaps dialogue between Pope Francis and President Obama will include some ideas on the very important subject of Infant Mortality.
    As President Obama continues to pursue his Semi-Socialist agenda we may see a very happy Pontif, who is most desirous of seeing healthy and vital children.
    Interestingly, one may look at the good news coming from Cuba…very encouraging, indeed!


    by: Emile Schepers
    January 31 2014

    “On January 3, the Cuban ministry of health released new statistics that show that the country’s infant mortality rate has hit a record low, which places it far ahead of the United States in this important health indicator.

    The infant mortality rate expresses the number of babies per thousand live births who die before reaching their first birthday.

    The Cuban rate for 2013 is 4.2 per thousand live births. This is down from 4.6 in 2012. The rate does not vary hugely for Cuba’s 16 provinces, though some of them – Pinar del Rio, Havana Province, Villa Clara, Sancti Spiritis, Ciego de Avila, Las Tunas, Holguin, Granma, Isla de Juventud – have lower rates than average. A number of towns had no infant deaths in 2013, according to the Cuban Ministry of Health.

    Infant mortality rates have been dropping in most of the world since the Second World War, due to better sanitation, nutrition and health care standards (especially maternal and child health, and preventive health care), but also due to factors like urbanization. However, in Cuba they have dropped farther and faster than in other poorer countries.

    Cuba does not have the lowest infant mortality rate in the world. That distinction belongs to countries which are both wealthy and have highly developed infrastructures and social welfare systems, such as Japan, Finland and Luxembourg, all of whom registered 2 infant deaths per 1000 live births. But Cuba has the lowest infant mortality rate in the Americas, and is far ahead of countries with similar per capita Gross Domestic Product levels.

    Cuba’s per capita Gross Domestic Product calculated by the Purchasing Power Parity method is about $10,200 per year; that of the United States is about $51,000 per year, nearly five times as much.

    The latest infant mortality rate for the U.S. is listed as 5.9 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. If anybody has an excuse for the United States being in worse shape than Cuba on this wrenchingly important statistic, that represents so much horrific suffering for families, we have not heard it.

    Besides taking care of its own babies and families better than our own country does, Cuba provides help to dozens of other poor countries by lending them doctors, nurses and other specialists, and by providing free training to their medical students. Socialism, it would appear, works.”
    ….note from observer Jules… After spending sixteen years in Central America, much of it in medical missionary work…I find preventable infant mortality the saddest of all human conditions.

  2. jules of Holy Toledo

    Thanks Denis for your interest…I’m in Phoenix for a few days and not able to get to my Rosicrucian info….will follow-up on that, for sure………………………….in the meantime here’s something I hope will be enjoyable:

    I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit.
    — Kahlil Gibran

    ……..observer Jules, on the road….

  3. Denis Eble

    I’d like to learn more about Rosicrucianism, Jules. Would you care to tell us more about how you became attached to the movement and how it influences your day-to-day activities

    • jules of Holy Toledo

      Just back into the N.W. Ohio deep freeze…and contemplating those 93,000,000 miles we find ourselves distant from the Sun, I am.

      As promised, here is a that
      little bit on the Rosicrucians…….

      “Within every human being lies the ultimate source of wisdom, compassion, strength and peace.
      All too often, these treasures remain undiscovered…hidden by the turmoil and distractions of our worldly existence.
      The Rosicrucian Order (AMORC) Ancient Mystical Order of Rose Cruz) teaches time honoured, practical techniques for unveiling the spiritual riches within. By tapping into this vast resource, students are empowered to serve their communities and humanity as a whole by incorporating spiritual values into all aspects of daily life.
      The Rosicrucian Order is committed to preserving and perpetuating its centuries-old body of knowledge for the betterment of all beings and our planet.”

      For more information on this philosophical and initiatic tradition, one can check out the following web address: http://www.rosicruciann.org/seeker
      or call: 408-947-3600
      one may also write to: Rosicrucians, 1342 Naglee Ave. San Jose, Calif. 95191
      and request a free copy of the book “THE MASTERY of LIFE”

      ….observer Jules in Holy Toledo….

      • Denis Eble

        Thanks, Jules. I was happy to read the line, “unveiling the spiritual riches within.” Within each of us lays that so-called Spark of the Divine- the spark that ignited in so many humans “for the betterment of all beings and our planet.” The What is obvious, the Way is not always eagerly pursued.

        Luckily for us, some of our fellow humans have led the Way to show us how it is done. I need not make a list. There were and are many.

        For me, the sad scenario in this human drama is that charlatans have arisin who purport to ‘know’ the way and induce others to follow in their footsteps which, in fact, lead nowhere. Or, worse yet, lead in the wrong direction.

        Religious institutions easily come to mind. Great bastions of accumulated dogma and ritual with cookie cutter mentality, they ‘know’ the way and promise a reward at the end if one conforms to their methodology.

        Interestingly it was Jesus himself who rebelled at stifling ‘way’ that religion was presented in the synagogue at Jerusalem. Adherence to laws, rituals and customs, he said, was not the Way to what he called the Kingdom. Rather, he told his followers, look into your own heart to know what is the right path to take.

        Sadly, that simple lesson was usurped, twisted and nullified by the very organization which developed after he died and used his name. That is the pitiful result of men with a misguided and self-serving agenda.

  4. jules of Holy Toledo

    While I feel that there can be a bridge connecting politics and religion (President Obama to Pope Francis) I think the real test is for us, as individuals, to step up to the plate and take charge of our own enlightenment process.

    As a Rosicrucian, I offer this, “The Manifesto Appellatio” to my fellow FAV’s readers:

    “More than ever, it is time now for us to move from religiosity to spirituality, which means replacing the sole belief in God with the knowledge of divine laws – that is, universal, natural, and spiritual laws. The well-being we seek, including on a material plane, is to be found in this knowledge and in the wisdom that ensues. An ancient Rosicrucian adage says, “It is from ignorance and ignorance alone that humans must free themselves.” It is indeed at the
    origin of the worst things a person can do to oneself, to others, and to one’s environment. It is also the source of different superstitions that demean humanity and prevent it from finding complete fulfillment. So give a spiritual direction to your life. In other words, do not be just a living thing, be a living soul.”

    So mote it be!……observer Jules in Holy Toledo…..

  5. jules of Holy Toledo

    Beautifully written David Gibson…
    a dialogue, any dialogue between these two “Servants of the People” is our only hope to make things better…..they will learn from each other and hopefully go forward with a renewed passion!

    ….observer Jules….

  6. nickbatt

    Where do these writers come from. So much wrong. So many biases. As I’ve said before, it is a mistake to look at the Pope or the Church through the left-right dichotomy of American politics. And this writer just can’t resist the temptation. Here are a few examples.
    I don’t expect any Catholics to hope or desire the Pope to “wag his finger’ at the President about abortion or anything else. I do expect the Pope will maintain the Church’s consistent teaching on both life and poverty issues without interfering in US partisan politics. Mr. Gibson’s speculations may titilate those obsessed by the latest fashions of our culture but that’s not what Popes do. For an organization that counts time in millenia, the 24 hr news cycle is irrelevant.
    Mr. Gibson didn’t quote any social conservatives who he said wanted the Pope to give Obama a “tongue lashing”. I suspect he couldn’t find any.
    Gibson’s analysis of the embassy issue was equally flawed. It’s not Republicans that are offended by the closure–it’s the Vatican. No different than we’d feel if the Russians put their US embassy in Toronto. This move may have been justified as a security measure but for a State Dept that didn’t protect our ambassador in Libya that sounds like an excuse.
    The closest Gibson came to being right was on Syria. But, since when is it news that a Pope, any Pope, Is against war. Again, that’s just what Popes do.

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