Deciphering the papal bull session
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
March 27, 2014 03:24 PM EDT
President Barack Obama and Pope Francis smiled and joked with each other in front of the cameras Thursday.
The official accounts of their meeting didn’t get along as well.
Obama, pressed on the details of the private meeting at the Vatican Thursday, said that the “bulk” of the conversation had focused on income inequality and world peace, with a particular interest in the Middle East.
The Vatican statement about the meeting didn’t even mention income inequality, saying instead the president and the pope had discussed “the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection” — not-so-subtle code for abortion and the concerns with the Obamacare contraception mandate that conservative Catholics had been hoping Francis would press the president on.
Still, both seemed to walk away from the meeting with what they wanted.
For months, Obama and his aides have tried to stress the connections between the president’s focus on helping people struggling in the economy and the jesuitical ministering to the needy that Francis has elevated in the Vatican since being elected last March.
Thursday, they got the footage to go along with that message, along with video of Obama, in Rome at a press conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, speaking at length about the inspiration he draws from Francis’s words.
There’s a “convergence between what policy makers need to be thinking about and what he’s talking about,” Obama said. “He’s not going to get into the details of it, but he reminds us.”
Obama, though, stressed that Francis “did not touch in detail” on Obamacare either. That, he said, was left to Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin in an ancillary meeting they had right afterward at the Vatican, allowing church authorities to remind people that they’d pressed the issue without the discomfort of having the pope be the one to talk tough.
“We actually did not talk a lot about social schisms,” Obama said of his meting with Francis. “That wasn’t really a topic of conversation.”
In his meeting with Parolin, Obama said, “we discussed briefly the issue of making sure that conscience and religious freedom was observed in the context of applying the law.”
Unlike the summaries the White House releases for most private meetings the president has with officials — carefully-crafted statements stressing the official version — its readout of the papal bull session was simply an excerpted transcript of Obama’s comments at the press conference.
As for the pope and the president, they exchanged presents. They posed for official photos with Secretary of State John Kerry and top White House staffers. There was even an official invitation to return the favor by hosting Francis in Washington.
And then, a few hours later, Obama got to talk about how much of their conversation had focused on their shared interest in helping “the poor, marginalized, those without opportunity, and growing inequality.”
“Those of us as politicians have the task of trying to come up with policies to address issues,” Obama said. “His Holiness has the capacity to open people’s eyes and see this is an issue.”
That’s exactly that moral high ground that Obama wants to be on as the White House presses a midterm message of raising the minimum wage, expanding education and child nutrition, investing in infrastructure and building out economic opportunity and job creation. Obama’s been railing against Republicans who oppose those efforts — and immigration reform, which the Vatican did mention in its statement one day after Democrats launched their discharge petition effort in the House.
Now Obama can put them on the other side of the conversation he had with Francis. Though he said the pope is above politics — “he’s dealing with higher powers,” Obama joked in his press conference — the implication isn’t all that subtle: Republicans are playing politics with people’s lives, while he’s trying to do what the pope agrees is the right thing.
But the pope needs to play to his own base too — including a U.S. Conference of Bishops eager to have papal support for the argument they’ve been hammering Obama on for years, a position that forms the essence of the Hobby Lobby case that was argued in front of the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
Official Vatican radio signaled on Wednesday night that these concerns were at the top of of church officials’ agenda heading into the presidential visit. The statement released afterward allowed them to reiterate that point, without Francis having to explicitly humiliate the president over a part of a law that he might argue by and large matches his interests in helping people in need.
That’s a very different approach than the one Pope Benedict XVI, Francis’s more hardline predecessor, took on Obama’s last trip to the Vatican in 2009, when the pontiff used the opportunity to make clear to the president his differences over stem cell research, abortion and other issues.
Instead, the Vatican said Thursday, “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,” which seemed a nod in the direction of what Obama’s been pressing to happen in Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea.
Obama said world peace was the issue the pair spent the second-most amount of time discussing, behind income inequality. They, according to the president, basically covered the whole globe, from the Middle East to Latin America. Francis, Obama said, was particularly concerned about what’s happening in Syria — a country where, over despite well over a hundred thousand people killed by Bashar Assad, Obama’s taken a largely hands-off, send some aid, don’t talk about it attitude.
Protecting religious freedom and stopping persecution was also on the agenda, Obama said. The Vatican also added ending human trafficking.
“The theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy,” Obama said. “That’s critical.”