The Pope Isn't a Party Boss

Factions Shouldn't Seek Messages From Obama Meeting

President Obama’s first salary as a community organizer was paid by a Catholic group and his earliest social justice work was rooted in Catholic social doctrine. He identified with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, then Chicago’s archbishop, whose consistent ethic of life encompassed a dedication to the poor, a concern over the human costs of war, and opposition to the death penalty.

You could imagine that at his meeting with Pope Francis on Thursday, the president was tempted to ask: Why can’t these American bishops get along with me? Or, perhaps more humbly: Holy Father, what can I do to make these guys happy?

It is a sign of how politicized the American Catholic Church has become that its different factions were lobbying hard over the message the bishop of Rome should send after meeting with the president of the United States.

Catholic conservatives hoped that Francis would again condemn abortion by way of upbraiding the pro-choice Obama. They were also seeking strong language supporting the campaign spearheaded by the more conservative bishops against the contraception mandate in the health care law.

Catholic progressives were looking for Francis to push the president to move more forcefully against poverty and inequality, around the world and not just at home. They hoped for some of the pope’s searing criticisms of global capitalism by way of reminding Obama that the Catholic Church is well to his left on economic matters.

Both sides, in other words, want Francis to bless their own positions inside the American Catholic struggle. The progressives believe they now have a friend in Rome and conservatives worry the progressives might be right. After all, as Michael Sean Winters pointed out in the National Catholic Reporter, “the American bishops who are most aggressively hostile to Obama are also the American bishops who have been most resistant to Pope Francis.”

But this meeting underscored something else: While Francis has decidedly moved the church back toward the social justice Catholicism that Obama connected with as a young man, Francis’ worldview is plainly not American. Efforts to shoehorn him into our debates will always have a distorting effect. And the Vatican -- which itself is divided into factions -- has other things to think about besides the contention within the American church.

From everything he has said, Francis is, in our terms, a social conservative. Yet the issues about which he feels a genuine sense of urgency involve the hundreds of millions around the globe who suffer from extreme deprivation and oppression. From this standpoint, the political and theological skirmishes that consume so much energy among believers in wealthy countries might seem a form of self-indulgence.

Francis didn’t leave conservative U.S. bishops out in the cold in their contraception battle, as the Vatican statement after the meeting made clear. But it’s difficult to see the pope joining them at the ramparts. The veteran Vatican correspondent John Allen has documented attacks on religious liberty from state-sponsored persecution, including the outright murder of Christians. In light of this, the American uproar over a requirement that contraception be subsidized in health insurance policies seems disproportionate. That’s especially true since the government-led health systems in many predominantly Catholic countries routinely cover contraception.

As for foreign policy, the Vatican has an approach of its own. It has often found itself allied with Obama -- for example, on his quest for Middle East peace -- but has also opposed him, as when he threatened military retaliation for Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Conservatives have ignored or downplayed the Vatican’s relative dovishness, except when it provided them with another club to use against Obama.

But this highlights the larger truth that Francis defies many currents of American thinking. Francis is anti-consumerist and anti-materialist. That is quite at odds with an American ethos that turns the mall into a religious shrine and shopping into a sacrament. The pope preaches a code of sacrifice that is not widely celebrated in our society outside the realm of military combat. He extols the simple life, a value popular in sections of the environmental movement, but not a big seller in a country obsessed with stuff and gadgets.

It would be good if Francis encouraged the parts of the American Catholic leadership most alienated from the president to stop treating this former church employee as an enemy. But the pope’s main job is to pose a radical challenge to our complacency and social indifference. In doing so, he should stir an uneasiness that compels all of us -- and that includes Obama -- to examine our consciences. 

(c) 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Thank you E.J. for putting this perhaps historic meeting into perspective. Indeed, politcal factions within the Church and within the broad American body politic have tried to influence the agenda of this meeting and no doubt will try to spin the result to their advantage. To the perceptive observer, all these efforts will l be seen as failures. This Pope will not be pigeonholed. As the title of the article says, "The Pope Isn't a Party Boss."

The conservatives will win. They will drive out the liberal and the flexible. The children of liberals will leave the church. The conervatives know this.

Conservative Republicans have turned "community organizer" into an insult. That says it all about what they value and believe. They've completely turned their backs on the Church's mission of social justice. They prioritize their political hatreds above all else.

On one hand, it would be easy for me to agree with you. But on the other hand, many of us exihbit a liberality in our youth and then at some point find times when "my parents were right." And yet, sharing that "right"ness didn't necessarily mean that we then lived and exhibited the exact same social values as our parents.

For example some simple as loving God and loving neighbor has led to such complexities as loving someone of another race, another class, another religion. All of these can and have been overcome without the church at large succumbing one way or another to being more liberal or more conservative (except when perhaps those issues became the fuel for political fires of the day).

But perhaps more to the point, I think your truism is only true on the surface. Many liberals (and I assume their children as well) have learned how to uphold values and how to move on and be part of a family lineage without making every difference a watershed moment of who was "in" or "out." There are quite a few of us "liberals" and our children who aren't going to leave the church. And whether or not the conservatives "win" just makes us sad for other reasons than being liberal.

It reminds us of being with someone who wants all the toys and attention, but doesn't know how to play.

Jay ... and loving someone of the same gender.

The world, and Christianity, is a big sand box.  There are plenty of places to play well and with others, not matter who says that their sand box is the only true sand box.

Sadly I think you are right. And this is exactly why so many of the young are leaving the church. These Amerian bishops have made the American church into a Latin rite evangelical protestant denomination. And when the American Bishops openly show disgust with a Pope who has the nerve to say all this materialism is wrong, that he wants a "Poor church". 

Its alittle tough to have a poor church that has a revulsion to the Poor.


Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment