Thursday, March 27, 2014

Pope and President

President Obama will be visiting Pope Francis today. There is nothing novel about American Presidents calling on the Pope. The first one to do so was Woodrow Wilson in 1919. Since then eight of his successors have all made the pilgrimage to the papal apartment; and from Paul VI to Benedict XVI (except for the short-lived John Paul I) all the recent popes have visited the United States and so also met the President here. These visits are, first and foremost, photo-ops, perhaps more ceremonial than substantive, but certainly also a valuable opportunity for each leader to highlight his institution's respective priorities and take the measure of the other.

Vatican foreign policy has tended to be somewhat Eurocentric in its view of the U.S. One result has been a certain tension between the two regarding recent the recent wars the U.S. has fought. And, of course, there has been tension between the Holy See and the U.S. over the latter's promotion of a post-modern secularist agenda both at home and around the world. To this mix, Pope Francis brings the fresh perspective of the Global South, which sees things differently from either the U.S. or Europe.

Much has been made recently about President Obama's Catholic experience working as a community organizer in Chicago. Undoubtedly, his exposure there to Catholic social teaching could create some commonality of concerns. Of course, the Pope is way to the left of President Obama on economic questions. Perhaps some of the Pope's global south perspective and Catholic moral vision may rub off on the President, pushing him to make combatting income inequality and world poverty higher priorities for the U.S. But there will always remain a yawning gap between the Catholic communitarian moral vision of society, on the one hand, and the individualistic consumerist economic vision of the American way of life, on the other.

The moral stresses created and exacerbated by our American way of life have seriously polarized American society in recent decades - a polarization in which American Catholics have participated along with everyone else, echoing some of the same divisions as society as a whole. Deliberation and debate are at the heart of a healthy democratic polity. Division and polarization can be its undoing.

As Daniel J. Boorstin observed in his 1953 classic, The Genius of American Politics, "A pretty good rule of thumb for us in the United States is that our national well-being is in inverse proportion to the sharpness and extent of theoretical differences between our political parties (p. 3).

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