by Candida Moss
Late last year, when President Obama reviewed the draft of a speech he was scheduled to give on economic inequality, he sent it back with a request: He wanted his speechwriter to add a quote from Pope Francis’s recent letter to the Catholic church.
“Across the developed world, inequality has increased,” Obama said in the Dec. 4 speech. “Some of you may have seen just last week, the pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length. ‘How could it be,’ he wrote, ‘that it’s not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?’”
The rhetoric of quotation is subtle, but in this particular round of political name-checking, Francis is the authority brought in to lend credibility to Obama’s policies.
Compare this to Obama’s relationship with Pope Benedict XVI. At the conclusion of his visit to the Vatican in 2009, Obama reportedly said that he looked forward to “a very strong relationship between our two countries.” Our countries. While it’s true that the pope is the head of the Vatican state, that’s hardly his primary role. In Benedict’s case, Obama acknowledged only political parity, not moral authority.
With Francis, though, things are clearly different. By quoting him in that December address, Obama deferred to Francis as a moral exemplar—and a model for action of a decidedly temporal nature. This only 50 years after John F. Kennedy, soon to be America’s first and only Catholic president, declared that he wouldn’t take orders from the pope.
Herein lies the genius of Pope Francis’s papacy: He has persuaded the world he isn’t a politician and, in doing so, has become arguably the most politically influential man in the world.
Earlier this week, when Secretary of State John Kerry, a Catholic, visited the Vatican, he remarked, “I know that the Holy Father is anticipating the visit of President Obama here, and the president is looking forward to coming here to meet with him.” The two leaders have much in common. Their elections were both historic firsts—Obama as the first black U.S. president, Francis as the first pope from Latin America and the first Jesuit to occupy the throne of St. Peter. Both preside over deeply divided constituencies and institutions that have been plagued by scandal and bureaucratic incompetence. Both were initially media darlings who charted an unlikely path to power, and whose ascension was heralded as ushering in a hopeful new era.
And yet Pope Francis’s approval rating is more than double that of Obama’s.
Whenever they do meet—no date has yet been announced—President Obama would be wise to talk politics with Francis. He might be able to pick up a few pointers.
Just as Obama began his presidency amid the global financial meltdown, when Francis was elected pope last March, he took the reins during a time of crisis. His predecessor, Benedict, had stepped down after only eight years, becoming the first pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415.
The challenges facing Francis were manifold: dwindling church attendance in Europe and North America; in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, pressing issues like hunger and persecution; and across the globe, a laity reeling from the pedophilia scandals and deeply divided over the relative importance of moral issues like gay marriage and abortion versus social issues like poverty and the vast gulf separating the rich world from the rest.
Francis began his papacy by shrugging off the trappings of wealth and privilege. He refuses to live in the luxurious papal apartments, declines to wear the more ornate papal vestments and drives a Ford Focus where Benedict favored a custom-made Renault, a Mercedes and a BMW X5. He instantly became the “People’s Pope,” or, as Obama would put it, “someone who walks the walk.”
Perhaps even more disruptively, Francis declared himself a sinner—an acknowledgement in keeping with Catholic theology but rarely put so honestly by the church’s leaders—and refused to acknowledge that he even had power over the millions in his flock, much less tried to wield it. His utter lack of conceit has won him a legion of fans.
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