The two were scheduled to meet for just half an hour, but their private discussion lasted 52 minutes. At the end, they exchanged gifts, with the Pope offering Obama two medallions and a copy of his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel [Evangelii Gaudium]. “You know, I actually will probably read this when I’m in the Oval Office, when I am deeply frustrated, and I am sure it will give me strength and will calm me down,” Obama said.” I hope,” the Pope responded.”
— Associated Press report on today’s meeting in the Vatican of US President Barack Obama with Pope Francis by Jim Huhnhenn and Nicole Winfield. The photo below shows the Pope handing Obama the copy of his encyclical, which Obama said he will “probably read.” US Secretary of State John Kerry can be seen in the far background between Obama and Francis.
Here is a link to the original AP article, which includes a brief video of the beginning of the meeting. One can see that the two men spoke via translators. Pope Francis speaks a little English, and understands some English, but he prefers to speak in Spanish or in Italian:
Details about what was said this morning in the Vatican during a 52-minute meeting between Pope Francis and US President Barack Obama are still sketchy hours after the meeting ended.
We know from the Vatican press communique released after the meeting that the points touched upon were mainly of two types: (1) world issues and (2) US issues.
But we do not know — and this is important — which of these matters were discussed directly with Pope Francis, and which were discussed with other high-ranking Vatican officials, like Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, who met with Obama after the meeting with the Pope ended. The Vatican’s press communique lumps all the meetings together, so it is impossible to know from the communique which topic was discussed with which person.
1. What “World Issues” Were Discussed?
As of now, we still do not know with precision.
All we know is that “international themes” (as the Vatican press release phrased it) and “questions of particular relevance for the Church in that country (i.e., in the United States) were discussed. So, world issues, and national issues inside the United States.
So, what might these “themes” have been?
It seems likely that they included two important ones:
(a) Ukraine and the confrontation there between Russia and the Western powers, and
(b) Syria, where a civil war has been raging for more than two years and where US bombing raids against the Assad regime were scheduled to begin in early September, until Pope Francis called for a world day of prayer and fasting for peace. If the “themes” included Syria, they would by extension, have included Syria’s neighbors — Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt — in general, the entire Middle East, as it is known that the Pope is concerned about the shrinking presence of Christians throughout the region, and as Francis is planning a trip to Jordan, Israel, and the occupied territories from May 24-26, just two month from now — the official schedule was just announced yesterday).
Were other “themes,” like the civil strife in Venezuela, or the economic and cultural (and moral) effects of “globalization”?
We simply do not yet know.
But, we know what type of solution was discussed: “it was hoped that there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution.”
To put it succinctly: that compromise can be reached (“negotiated”) without war, in each case.
2. What “US Issues” Did the Two Men Discuss?
Again, the official communique is very brief, hardly more than a note. Still, it lists the following topics:
(a) “the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection”
(b) “the issue of immigration reform”
(c) “the eradication of trafficking in human persons”
So, clearly, in this part of the discussion, there was discussion of the “Obamacare” health insurance legislation, and the Church’s position that Catholics — and others as well — who do not believe it is moral to support abortion, sterilization and contraception should not be forced to do so.
Here is the complete communique published by the Vatican:
This morning, 27 March 2014, the Hon. Barack H. Obama, President of the United States of America, was received in audience by His Holiness Pope Francis, after which he met with His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States.
During the cordial meetings, views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.
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, 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.
Will Obama Learn from Francis?
“Given his great moral authority, when the Pope speaks it carries enormous weight,” Obama said in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera published ahead of his papal visit. “He can cause people around to the world to stop and perhaps rethink old attitudes and begin treating one another with more decency and compassion.”
Will President Obama himself “stop and perhaps rethink old attitudes” following his meeting with Pope Francis?
We do not know.
But, at the end of the meeting, during a time when gifts were exchanged — Obama gave Francis a packet of seeds from the White House garden, to be planted in the Vatican Gardens at Castel Gandolfo, outside of Rome, where the Vatican has a small farm which supplies milk, eggs, vegetables and fruit for the papal table — there was a striking moment.
Pope Francis handed Obama a copy of his encyclical letter on “The Joy of the Gospel” (Gaudium evangelii), published on November 24, 2013 (the single most important written product of the first year of Francis’ pontificate).
“You know,” Obama told Francis, “I actually will probably read this when I’m in the Oval Office, when I am deeply frustrated, and I am sure it will give me strength and will calm me down.”
“I hope,” the Pope responded.
If Obama actually reads the Pope’s words, what will he find?
He will find an analysis of modern economic activity which is sharply critical of oppression of all types, and calls for an economy and society of “solidarity” so that the poor and unfortunate are not ground down into misery.
But he will also find an analysis of conscience and of morality which is likely to challenge Obama.
“The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism,” the Pope writes near the beginning of the encyclical, “is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.” (Paragraph 2)
“A blunted conscience…”
The Pope makes a powerful critique of our present economic system, and he is of course right. There is much about our system which cries out for criticisms, and for reform. The Pope finds the source of our problem in “the denial of the primacy of the human person.”
“The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person!” the Pope writes. “We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.” (Paragraph 55)
The Pope adds: “Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.” (Paragraph 58)
But Francis also denounces the “narcissism” and “elitism” of individuals, in a passage which warns of the dangers of the ancient heresy of “Gnosticism” and of “Pelagianism,” now re-emerging as a “Promethean neo-Pelagianism.”
“Spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church, consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being,” Francis writes (Paragraph 93).
“This worldliness can be fuelled in two deeply interrelated ways. One is the attraction of gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings.
“The other is the self-absorbed Promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. These are manifestations of an anthropocentric immanentism. It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity.” (Paragraph 94)
In his teaching, Pope Francis is very clear that Christians have a role in public life. He writes: “No one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society. Who would claim to lock up in a church and silence the message of Saint Francis of Assisi or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta? They themselves would have found this unacceptable. An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed ‘the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics,’ the Church ‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.'”
And, this fight for justice includes the protection of all human lives. Christians seek social justice, they seek to lift up the oppressed, and they take seriously the injunction “thou shalt not kill.” And this means that Christian morality will always be “pro-life” and opposed to what Pope John Paul II referred to as a “culture of death.”
So Pope Francis speaks very strongly on behalf of the poor. He writes: “In all places and circumstances, Christians, with the help of their pastors, are called to hear the cry of the poor. This has been eloquently stated by the bishops of Brazil: ‘We wish to take up daily the joys and hopes, the difficulties and sorrows of the Brazilian people, especially of those living in the barrios and the countryside – landless, homeless, lacking food and health care – to the detriment of their rights.'” (Paragraph 191)
But Pope Francis is also a powerful defender of the unborn. And, in his famousParagraph 213, he makes this crystal clear: “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development.”
So, if Obama does sit down in the Oval Office, and if he does pick up this text by Pope Francis, given to him as a gift this morning, he will find much to reflect upon, perhaps enough even to cause him to “rethink old attitudes” and to begin treating the most innocent among us “with more decency and compassion.”