Friday, October 29, 2021

Pope and President

The two most prominent Catholics in the world - Pope Francis and U.S. President Joe Biden - met in Rome today. This is something all modern presidents like to do, regardless of their religion. The first U.S. president to visit a Pope was Woodrow Wilson, who met with Pope Benedict XV in 1919 while in Europe for the Paris Peace Conference after World War I. At that time, presidential travel abroad was a controversial novelty, while the Pope was infamously a "Prisoner of the Vatican." Forty years later in 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower visited Pope Saint John XXIII. By then, presidential travel abroad had become more routine, and the Pope and Italy had been reconciled, thus eliminating the awkwardness associated with visiting both the Vatican and the Qurinale and making future such visits a regular occurrence. 

So President John F. Kennedy visited Pope Saint Paul VI on the day after his coronation in 1963, followed by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, Richard M. Nixon in 1969 and 1970, and Gerald R. Ford in 1975. Jimmy Carter visited Pope Saint John Paul II in 1980, followed by Ronald Reagan in 1982 and 1987, George H.W. Bush in 1989 and 1991, Bill Clinton in 1994, and George W. Bush in 2001, 2002, and 2004. Bush later visited Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 and 2008. Barak Obama visited Pope Francis in 2014, and Donald Trump did so in 2017. 

Of these, before Biden only Kennedy was a Catholic. What is distinctive this time is that, while once again the President is a Catholic, this time both the President and the Pope appear to be actively disliked by some very vocal American Catholics. Obviously, that conflict or complex of conflicts (or even just the appearance thereof) is what the media will want to focus on. If this particular presidential visit to the Apostolic Palace will likely get a lot more media attention than the typical, in-passing coverage that such largely ceremonial events usually get, it will be because of this perception of serious conflict - not conflict between the Pope and the President but between both of them and some very vocal American Catholics. And, as we all know all too well, journalism is intensely addicted to prioritizing conflict over other aspects of the news. All this, of course, will take place against the background of ideological polarization in both American politics and an American Catholicism which seems to be replicating that political polarization in its internal life.

That said, what actually brings Biden to Rome is the 16th G-20 Summit on October 30-31, after which the President will head to Glasgow, Scotland, for the COP26 meeting focused on climate change. (COP26 refers to the 26th annual "Conference of Parties" since the Rio meeting in the 1990s.) One would guess that the issues that will preoccupy those two meetings, especially climate change, would unsurprisingly primarily preoccupy the Pope and the President during their private meeting.

Indeed, prior to the meeting, the White House released a statement saying that the Pope and the President would discuss ending the pandemic, tacking the climate crisis, and caring for the poor. One would expect that those same issues would also be on the Pope's agenda, along perhaps with another issue close to the Pope's heart, immigration (an intractable issue in U.S. politics which, one suspects, the President might prefer not have to talk about). 

On what is increasingly emerging as the fundamental moral challenge of our era, responding to the climate crisis, Pope and President are allies. The Pope, in particular, has staked out a very strong position, notably in his monumental encyclical Laudato Si', but is sadly not going to Glasgow in person. Biden is going to Glasgow but with his climate agenda apparently weakened by the short-sighted politics of senators in his own political party - yet further evidence of American unwillingness to respond adequately to the climate crisis. (Biden's Build Back Better Bill will eventually pass in some form and possibly with many of its climate provisions intact, but the inability to pass it in time for the president to be able to showcase it at Glasgow is yet another instance of American politics' notorious lack of any real sense of urgency about climate - or almost anything else.)

Still, the visit seemed to serve its purpose. The private meting between the world's two most prominent Catholics lasted 75 minutes, followed by the customary exchange of gifts. According to the official White House statement, the President praised "Pope Francis' leadership in fighting the climate crisis, as well as his advocacy to ensure the pandemic ends for everyone through vaccine sharing and an adequate global economic recovery." Afterwards, Biden commented that the Pope had blessed his rosary beads and added, “He was happy I’m a good Catholic and I should keep receiving Communion.”

(Photo: Vatican Media via Associated Press)

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