With the U.S. visit of Pope Francis looming on the horizon, pundits are voicing their predictions that President Barack Obama will attempt to seize the opportunity to cash in on the Pope’s popularity to galvanize support for the Democratic Party.
While the President will focus on the environment, healthcare, immigration and other issues where he believes common ground exists, he will likely find Francis an uncomfortable bedfellow when the subject changes to abortion, same-sex marriage and religious liberty.
“It’s going to be a come-to-Jesus moment—no pun intended—for the many politicians who want to claim the mantle of Pope Francis,” said Michael Wear, a former White House official who headed faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 campaign.
When Obama took office in 2009, he enjoyed an enviable popularity, which has progressively waned in the intervening years. Conversely, Pope Francis has garnered world-wide approval that the President can only admire from a distance.
Despite a significant drop in popularity since the publication of his encyclical letter on the environment, Pope Francis is still extremely popular in the United States. An overflow crowd of thousands is expected to watch his address to Congress next month on Jumbotrons from the National Mall.
Obama has already attempted to enlist the Pope for his projects, calling him a “transformative leader” whose influence has gone well beyond the Roman Catholic community.
The White House praised Francis for his intervention in diplomatic talks between the U.S. and Cuba, crediting him with advancing the process by writing leaders of both countries and hosting their delegations at the Vatican for final talks.
Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic, has also underscored the importance of the Pope’s upcoming visit, saying that it will constitute an important moment not only for Catholics but for all Americans.
“Pope Francis has breathed new life into what I believe is the central mission of our faith: Catholic social doctrine,” Biden said, adding that Francis “has become a moral rudder for the world on some of the most important issues of our time, from inequality to climate change.”
In an attempt to steer the conversation away from divisive issues, the White House has said it is placing economic opportunity, immigration and refugees, and protection of religious minorities high on the agenda for Obama’s meeting with the Pontiff.
Yet there are indications that White House efforts to co-opt the Pope’s visit for its own agenda may wind up to be a two-edged sword.
Last year when Obama visited Francis in the Vatican, he was caught out in a lie by saying that he and the Pope hadn’t discussed social issues in any detail, which was contradicted by the official Vatican account of their meeting. The Vatican insisted that the two men had discussed religious freedom, life and conscientious objection—areas where the two men differ dramatically.
Pope Francis has called abortion a “scourge” and an “attack on life,” insisting that pro-abortion activists “follow the code of the Mafia” by eliminating those who get in their way, while Obama is on record as the most radically pro-abortion president since the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade in 1973.
Another bone of contention will be the area of same-sex marriage, since the Pope’s U.S. visit will center on family issues and the President has not only embraced same-sex marriage, he has attempted to extend it beyond American borders. Francis has been a harsh critic of what he calls the “gender politics” behind gay activism, calling modern gender ideology “demonic,” and comparing gender theory with “the educational policies of Hitler.”
While President Obama may find occasional expressions to cheer about in the Pope’s addresses, he will also find himself more often than he would like in the uncomfortable situation of being scolded by one of the world’s most vocal—and popular—moral leaders.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome