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Seeing things.

Dear readers, I'm afraid I owe you an apology. Last week, I criticized members of the media for their coverage of Pope Francis's meeting with President Obama. Before the meeting, some commentators suggested that the pope was planning to confront the president about his support for the contraception mandate and abortion rights. And after the meeting others contrasted the Vatican's press release with Obama's recollections at a press conference. I wrote:

There's nothing perplexing about the differences between a formal Vatican statement and a president's ad libbed remarks to the press. The Vatican's news release was never going to contain revealing language about the pope's emotional response to meeting Obama. It was never going to go on at any length or in any detail about what they discussed. When Benedict XVI met with George W. Bush in 2008, for example, it was, yes, awesome, but the joint statement of the Holy See and the White House didn't exactly describe the visit in florid terms. That's just how these things go.

How mistaken I was. If only I'd waited a couple of days, I would have had my illusions dispelled by George Weigel. He, too, takes issue with pre-meeting speculation, noting that some of it caused "confusion" that was "instructive on several counts." According to Weigel, that shows just how "poorly equipped" most of the media is "to cover the Vatican and its ways." But those ways are right in Weigel's wheelhouse, so he attempts to sort through them for the rookie Vaticanista, beginning where so many of Catholicism's riches lie: symbolism, especially photographic symbolism, particularly photographic symbolism that entails the appearance of popes with other world leaders.

Pope Francis conducted his conversation with President Obama across a desk — a stage-setting exercise on the Vatican’s part that one canny media veteran thought “a tad aggressive” and another observer said resembled a school principal having a firm talk with a recalcitrant student.

I hadn't considered that. But now that Weigel mentions it, I see his point. How many office-hours have I spent sitting across the desk from a professor who offered firm rebuttals to my half-baked musings on this or that theological problem? Of course, I may have been too arrogant to understand how thoroughly my incompetence had been exposed. But I had no illusions about who had authority and who did not.

See for yourself:

There you have it. On one side: Leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, chosen by the College of Cardinals to serve for the rest of his life, whose approval ratings are the envy of elected officials across the globe. On the other: president of a country of 320 million, half of whom aren't happy with his leadership, and a tiny fraction of whom cares enough to vote. Could Pope Francis have been any clearer? When a pope places a desk between a world leader and himself, it's obvious to anyone who knows anything about the Catholic Church that he is signaling the distance between the two--if not his outright disapproval.

Just look at how Pope John Paul II handled talks with his collaborator--or at least pen pal--Ronald Reagan:

Wait, that can't be right. Let's try again. Here's a photo of Benedict XVI and George W. Bush, who, we know, agreed on the non-negotiables:

Well, now I'm beginning to wonder whether Weigel really is keyed in to the nuances of papal photography. He has more to say on the subject. Quite a bit, actually:

Then there were the first photos released by the Holy See. Pope Francis is loath to be turned into a stage prop for politicians, and so he generally avoids offering photographers smiling shots when he is with heads of state or government. And while the photo used on the front page of the March 28 Washington Post showed Francis smiling at what appears to have been an Obama witticism, the first photo of the two men released by the Vatican offered a different image and message: a rather stern-looking pope beside a smiling president who seemed unaware of his conversation partner’s wish not to be used. The same was true of the official photo of the pope with the presidential party. Most of the Americans (including POTUS but not, instructively, Susan Rice) were cheerfully, almost blithely, grinning; Pope Francis, with guarded eyes and a flat expression, seemed discinclined to join the jollity.

All right, maybe Weigel has a point here. The pope doesn't look too thrilled to be standing next to the contraceptor-in-chief, does he?

But the Washington Post wasn't the only outlet to side with the White House by distributing the happiest-clappiest shots of pope and president. The L.A. Times and the New York Times ran with photos depicting a pope clearly working hard to mask his disdain for Obama's domestic agenda. Even a local news station captured a telling moment, when the pope gave Obama a copy of his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.

Weigel translates that papal message too: "The pope offered the president...Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), as if to say, 'You and your people have been making a number of suggestions about who I am and what I’m about; here is who I really am, and here is the central theme of my pontificate: a call to the Church to consider itself in permanent mission, bringing the divine mercy to the world.'" Obviously Francis intended Obama to focus on the passages Weigel highlights, in which the pope defends the unborn. It's written all over his face.

Of course, Francis would never come out and say such a thing. But as Weigel notes, it's what the Vatican didn't say that speaks volumes. Its news release was, according to Weigel, "striking in its terseness." Here's the part about what they discussed:

In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the Church in that country [the United States], such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life, and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform. Finally, the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated.

I know, difficult to understand--and somewhat more oblique than, say, John Paul II's comments to George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq war. But Weigel is on this too. "The Holy See underscored that it was very concerned about the HHS mandate and its impact on the religious freedom of all, about the administration’s radical pro-abortion policies, and about the effects of all this on the civil and legal position of Americans of conscience."

Now, you shouldn't fault yourself for not being able to read these tea leaves as clearly as Weigel can. He knows more than your average observer of things Catholic. For example, did you know that Pope Francis's "insistence on the reality of Satan" stems from  his "repeated references to Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 dystopian novel, Lord of the World"? But don't rush out and buy it, Weigel cautions--it's not exactly "(cue gentle cough behind hand) great literature"--he can interpret that for you too.

For like the Antichrist figure in Signorelli’s Last Judgment fresco cycle in the Orvieto cathedral, Benson’s Antichrist is an attractive man: intelligent, urbane, seemingly sympathetic to suffering, a mesmerizing public speaker.

Sound familiar?

Yet beneath that attractive façade is a demonic figure obsessed with power and determined to cast the God of the Bible out of human affairs: a man who is an instrument of Satan, the great deceiver and, as Jorge Mario Bergoglio not infrequently refers to him, the “father of lies.”

In other words, dear readers, don't be fooled. Not by White House spin doctors. Not by the Vatican statement itself. Sometimes it takes a seasoned professional to decode complex Catholic messages, to tell you which words of a photo's thousand matter, or which parts of a papal encyclical you can safely dismiss.

Because if anything is clear from Weigel's long career commenting on papal comings and goings, it's this: If you bring the signal, he'll bring the noise.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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How right Weigel is! Look at that body language in the first photo. Supplicant on the right hoping for a B+; principal on the left urging better behavior. How could we have missed that?

Oh dear, now George Weigel is an expert in body language.

Grant, you can Google even more images.  President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Apr, 5), Presiden ot Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan (Mar. 22) - all seated across the same desk as he did with Obama.

I find it interesting to note how ornate is the desk used by Pope Benedict XVI!

Stealing from Gov. Ann Richards in her campaign that defeated George (Shrub) Bush in the state of Texas in his first political campaign:

Well, George W. can't help it; he was born with a papal seal stamped on his brain and that seal allows him to perfectly read all papal *tea leaves*.

More of the ridiculous Weigel:

There's nothing sadder than someone who USED to have access to certain levels of power and influence who now comes face to face with the reality of being a has-been, particularly when said person remains a wannabe.

Bowing out gracefully is a sign of class.  Continuing to bloviate isn't.  Weigel and Wild Bill Donahue should go on the road on an EWTN lecture circuit, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and Opus Dei.

Jim, I may be wrong in my intuition but It seems to me that this Pope can't be manipulatrd by ANYONE.

Helen:   JPII was his own man.  Along came Marcial Maciel Degollado and money.  The rest is embarrassing history.

We don’t know enough yet about Francis.  I hope you are correct, but we shall see.



JPII was his own man. ?? No way.  He was indebted  to Cardinal Krol.

I would like to see the Pope's cross 

Of these two world leaders, I believe that President Obama has much more integrity than Pope Francis has.

Rather than Commonweal wasting its time with talking about the highly marketed pope taking the President to task for respecting the rights of women to make their own decisions on birth control, I would have hoped that Commonweal would be concerned about whether President Obama would tell Pope Francis that it is necessary for the Attorney General to investigate the sexual abuse of innocent children and vulnerable adults by predator priests in the Catholic Church, since it is a matter of civil law.

I am a physician who is Catholic. I have met many who have been sexually abused by priests. Right now, Pope Francis is abusing diplomatic immunity, as he protects his Archbishop Wesolowski from facing charges of sexually abusing young boys in Poland and in the Dominican Republic, where he was papal nuncio. The pope says his archbishop will be investigated in the Vatican. It is the job of law enforcement, not the job of the church, to investigate crimes and criminals. After the police investigate and prosecute and put predators in prison, the church can decide what else to do by canon law, but not before civil law deals with the predator clergy. The pope cannot be his own law in 2014.

Sincerely,   Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, M.D., M.Spir.

Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh:

You should get together with Judy Jones of SNAP.

You two would get along mighty fine.



Let us not obsess over the Distinguished Senior think tank Fellow. He is currently playing a bad hand, and he lost his edge during the years when he was able to deal himself a bunch of good ones.

The photos are good, though. Obama and Reagan knew how to appear attentive, while the Decider slouched as if he were discussing football with Condi on a Saturday afternoon. (With Nan Dan, I'd like a better view of Francis's cross.)

But you can't trust photos. Everyone was amazed at how suavely I carried off my role when my wife and I were married, yet in all the photos she appears serene while I appear like someone who just realized his hair is on fire. Maybe the Decider was caught in the middle of shifting into an attentive pose. If you go back and look at a bunch of the group shots involving Pope Pius XII you will see why Bob Olmstead was convinced the photos were taken with a cardboard cutout of the pope.




You should get together with Judy Jones of SNAP.

? Dr. McHugh has a case, Ms. Jones has a job.

Benedict wins the desk sweepstakes, hands down.  

Note to the Vatican media office: next time, perhaps the Holy Father can further cultivate his image for unassuming humility by meeting with the next world leader, not across a table or a desk, but crammed into one of those worker-bee cubicles with swivel chair for occupant, green or orange chair with plastic arms for visitor, two drawers, a desktop computer, and coat hook.  Or they could sit across the lunch table from one another in the guest-house refectory.  Or Skype.


Is it true that George was the model for Robert Langdon in Dan Brown's novels?  He sure reads the Vatican symbols in a way that Langdon would envy.

Poor George Weigel, after a lifetime of cultivating the right-wing corporate gravy train, he now has to sport that very strained Nixon-plastic smile now that all that Weigle has to talk about is a seriously humble Jesuit pope with those disturbing connections to liberation theology.

When all you body-language experts are analyzing the presidential-papal moment at the desk, you should remember that both of these men are very skilled politicians who are playing to very different political bases:  Papa Francesco needed to buck-up his American hierarch minions who are totally discredited with the American public; President Obama is desperate to avoid a political wipeout for Democrats this November.  Ergo, both needed to make nice

Remember, all politics are local:  Both the pope and president - looking past each other -  were only "making nice" sitting at that desk.  Neither one was going to invite a substantive discussion of the political issues that seperate them. 

@ Rosemary McHugh: It has been my experience that American politicians, especially Democrats, are loathe to take on the Catholic Church mainly because with the hierarchs' deep pockets they can usually fend-off any legal challenges in court [cases in point:  Finn in Kansas City & Lynn in Philadelphia - sadly there are many more].  

The lawyers' adage goes:  You never want to find yourself in court against either Major League Baseball or the Catholic Church - you always loose.  Besides, in the case of American hierarchs, rich men do not go to jail in America.

There is no political upside for American politicians to go out of their way to antagonize the hierarchs when it is critical to court their politically conservative congregations when election time comes around.  [For Democrats, they need the ever growing Latino segment of the electorate to provide their margins of victory.  Latino's, while liberal about immigration and labor issues, remain way too macho on 'family' matters.]

[BTW, I'm sure Democratic election strategists ordered another round of beers for everyone at the bar when those images of Cardinal Padre Sean O'Malley celebrating Mass on the Mexican border were flashed across American TV screens, all the while the Republican crazies are still bellowing about "building that wall."  Never interfer when your political opponents have a gun pointed at their heads.]  

Jim P. Do I detect a lack of satisfaction with your current office arrangements? Our last employee who expressed such thoughts was relocated to the basement with uncovered electric wires sagging over his desk. That space, I believe, is still available.

Tom - you must be psychic :-).  I'm in a different kind of environment now, but I did spend many years in quarters similar to what I described, and had some great meetings.  Two-in-a-cube beats that ingenious corporate innovation from the '80's: the conference room with the high table and no chairs, to prevent people from settling in and having long meetings.  I don't know what President Obama's work digs were like in his community-organizer days, but your basement may be a step up from those.  Plus, the guy in your basement can stir the cans of paint from time to time, and toss a load in the dryer.


Another condescending, sarcastic and judgemental piece.  Where is mercy?


"I'm sure Democratic election strategists ordered another round of beers for everyone at the bar when those images of Cardinal Padre Sean O'Malley celebrating Mass on the Mexican border were flashed across American TV screens, all the while the Republican crazies are still bellowing about "building that wall."

Not so fast, Democrats. The Republicans has an ace up thier sleeves on the immigration issue - JEB BUSH.

Jeb speaks Spanish fluently, is married to a Mexican woman, and has spoken out strongly about the plight of illegal immigrants:

“The way I look at this is someone who comes to our country because they couldn't come legally ... and they crossed the border because they had no other means to work, to be able to provide for their family, yes, they broke the law, but it's not a felony.... .It's an act of love, it's an act of commitment to your family.”

In addition, he is a fourth degree Knight of Columbus (Channel Carl Anderson.).

Helen, For the Jebster can get the current Republican Party's nomination Rush Limbaugh would have to shut up, and FoxNews would have to shut down.


It's a shame because he seems like a decent sort of chap, not like the looney tunes that the seem to be running for the Reppublican nomination.

I noticed this paragraph in Francis X. Rocca's writeup of the meeting for CNS:

Inside the library, the two leaders sat down on either side of the pope's desk, each with an interpreter beside him. Through his interpreter, Msgr. Mark Miles, the pope, who spoke in Spanish, could be heard telling the president: "I'd like you to feel really at home here."

It's too bad there aren't any photos to prove that the pope had his fingers crossed behind his back the whole time!

Thanks, Mollie, for the link.  I've been wondering who that cute translator is. ;-)

Getting back to the seating arrangement.  Both Netanyahu and Ken Hackett, Obama's ambassador to the Holy See, sat to the left of the pope not on the opposite side of the desk.



@ Helen:  Most Democrats are salivating at the prospect of running against another Bush.  [Maybe they could get W. to paint their portraits, too!?!]

Jeb was not a very popular governor by the time his term ended - he only looks good compared than bald-headed fool who now holds the job.

No one cares that Jeb speaks enough Spanish so that he can converse with his housekeeper and gardner.  The Bushes are just so white ... just ask Barbara!

Besides, as long as Jeb goes around expressing his "love" for immigration and immigrants, all those racist crazies in the Republican party are not going to support him.

I just hope that Jeb will don his KofC plumed chapeau, unsheath his trusty sword and swish around in his red and black cape.  The increasingly diverse American electorate will immediately identify him with all those other aging boozers in the KofC and start to laugh out loud.  

[I should acknowledge that my dad was a Fourth Degree KofC.  My cousin is presently the Grand Knight in Frostburg, MD - trust me there is nothing else going on in Frostburg these days that amounts to little more than a social club drinking with your buddies.  I'm not disparaging that - drinking with your buddies is a good thing!]

Unfortunately, the press and world media are in too much of a hurry to see a fight break out than to notice two world leaders sit down and converse together. Are the super right wing folk disappointed that Pope Francis didn't scream and shout at Obama for his stance? Or pick a fight in his post meeting remarks? Our new pope is tolerant, polite, receptive and, most importantly, PASTORAL. His pastoral side continues to dominate and give us all hope for a more forgiving, good news church.

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