WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will meet with dozens of world leaders this week in Europe, but few of those encounters will attract more popular interest than his first audience with Pope Francis on Thursday.
The presidential visit will be the 28th time a U.S. president has met the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, who is also head of state for Vatican City, according to a summary prepared by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that details the previous 27 events, including the first in 1919 by then-President Woodrow Wilson.
Don't expect a major agreement to result, or a major argument to erupt for that matter, Vatican-watchers say. David Gibson of Religion News Service wrote, "American and Vatican officials say the talks may disappoint those hoping for fireworks, and that the summit is going to focus on collaboration much more than conflict. One reason is that the two men have a lot in common. Moreover, neither side wants to derail the chances for greater cooperation at a time of global volatility."
Of the two leaders, it's arguable that Pope Francis is the more globally popular. Fortune magazine named the pope, after little more than a year in office, as the world's "greatest" leader. "Francis has electrified the church and attracted legions of non-Catholic admirers by energetically setting a new direction," the business magazine said.
Obama, who met Pope Benedict XVI four years ago, has what the New York Times called "Catholic Roots" from his time as a community organizer working out of offices in a Chicago parish, where he came to praise more leaders such as then-Cardinal Francis Bernardin. However, those connections may not guarantee a smooth session between the two leaders.
"But the Vatican — aware that Mr. Obama has far more to gain from the encounter than the pope does, and wary of being used for American political consumption — warns that this will hardly be like the 1982 meeting at which President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II agreed to fight Communism in Eastern Europe," the Times reported. “ ‘We’re not in the old days of the great alliance,' said a senior Vatican official who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about the mindset inside the Holy See. While Mr. Obama’s early work with the church is 'not on the radar screen,' the official said, his recent arguments with American bishops over issues of religious freedom are."
And not everyone applauds Obama's earlier Catholic connections. Writing in National Review Online, Stanley Kurtz said the future president's work was more in service of the goals of mentor Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals" platform than of the Catholic Church.
"So Obama’s vaunted praise of Cardinal Bernardin and his proselytizing alliance with the Catholic Church are not what they appear to be (or what the New York Times makes them out to be)," Kurtz wrote. "Obama and his organizing mentors were simply running Alinsky’s game on the Catholic Church, promising to help advance its goals, while in reality co-opting the clergy to leftist political ventures at odds with their intent."
The National Catholic Reporter's Michael Sean Winters hopes a little of Pope Francis might rub off on the president, prompting him "to go deeper, to get past his crimped Cartesianism and capture some of the pope’s winning moralism.
"We have, given our recent history, come to see moralism as a scolding thing, but it need not be so. If Pope Francis has done anything this year, it is to consign the image of the Church as a scold to yesteryear and, instead, put forth a moral vision that is bursting with encouragement and the existential lack of stridency that comes from a deep belief in the mercy of God."
In a syndicated column, Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post adds that a meeting with Pope Francis, however cordial, should not be construed as an endorsement. The genial pontiff, she writes, "is also a cagey, worldly wise Jesuit — keenly aware of human nature and motivations. In other words, he knows full well that he is the object of a presidential photo-op.
"But the man whose kind smile reminds us all that we were children once will play his part because, let’s face it, he’s the pope. And though he may bless our president and beam that knowing smile, his prayer for humanity’s salvation has no political party affiliation and should be construed by none as such."