Pope Francis and President Obama: Perception vs. Reality

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I try to restrict my blogging to issues related to higher education.  From time to time, I write about topics related to the Catholic Church from the context of my experience as the President of a Catholic College.  But the first anniversary of the papacy of Pope Francis and his recent meeting with the President of the United States has really caused me to reflect on the difference between perception and reality.

On March 27, President Obama visited the Vatican and spent close to an hour with Pope Francis.  I am not sure why the President asked for this meeting, but spending time with the most popular leader in the world cannot hurt a President who has approval ratings hovering at or slightly above 50%.  President Obama has been an outspoken advocate for social issues and his efforts are clearly laudable for those of us concerned about the Common Good.

After the meeting, both sides issued separate reports on their time together.  In byzantine language familiar to both Washington, DC and the Vatican, the summaries of their discussions were different and somewhat opaque.  It seems to me that the perception that was promoted is that these two leaders had a friendly conversation and share a common agenda focused on social issues. 

President Obama clearly has a concern for social justice.  In fact, his sentiments are rooted in his experience with the Catholic Church.  Anyone interested in this history should read the March 22, 2014 article in the NY Times by Jason Horowitz entitled, “The Catholic Roots of Obama’s Activism.” 

In the mid 1980’s, Obama arrived in Chicago to work as a community organizer.  According to Horowitz, Obama was deeply affected by the writing and speeches of Cardinal Joseph L. Bernadin, who first developed the concepts of a “consistent ethic of life” and the integration of life issues and social justice into a “seamless garment.”

But despite these roots in a Catholic notion of life and justice, and the good work he is trying to do, the President holds many views contrary to the teaching and belief of the Catholic Church and its leader, Pope Francis. 

There is a perception vs. reality confusion with the Pope as well.  His personal approach, his humility, his outreach to the poor, his smile, etc., all seem genuine.  His direction to focus less on the issues of contraception and homosexuality has been welcome to those who believe that the Church has become too fixated on certain issues to the exclusion of the broader social gospel.

But the reality is that the Pope has said nothing and done nothing to undermine the fundamental beliefs of the Church related to life issues.  In fact, while he has broadened the agenda and invited a more intimate relationship between the Church and the faithful, he has been consistent theologically with his predecessors.

Perhaps the one clear sign that we need to pay more attention to reality rather than perception can be found in the gift exchange been Pope Francis and President Obama.  Pope Francis gave the President a copy of his recent apostolic exhortation, “Evangelium Gaudium.”  The President promised to read it.  If he does, he will quickly realize that while the Pope and the President share some views, they are very different in many other values and beliefs.  And that’s just the reality of the situation!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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