The much anticipated meeting between the first African American President and the first Latin American Pope came in the wake of US Supreme Court cases concerning conflicts between presidential health care mandates and religious freedom and on the eve of congressional mid-term elections.
As the press gaggle prepared to get into place, two issues were on the minds of American Catholics.
Those favorable to the President’s economic agenda expected the Vatican to underscore points of contact between Obama’s domestic politics and Francis’ social magisterium. But, those concerned about the fate of religious freedom in America hoped that subject would surface during the two leaders’ talks behind closed doors. As the encounter drew closer, Vaticanistas projected the Pope would stick to issues he holds in common with the President, eschewing sustained discussion about religious liberty issues.
The United States Ambassador to the Holy See, Ken Hackett, predicted that “the president will say that we have principled differences on many issues … But let’s focus on where we find convergences, areas of agreement.” If he did say that, Pope Francis didn’t take the bait.
Just a few hours after the audience, the Holy See Press Office stunned Vatican watchers when it confirmed that freedom of religion stood front and center during discussions about domestic affairs while social justice issues seemingly took a back seat to the conversation. That news signaled a surprising switch in papal priorities.
But, let’s take a closer look at how the issue shook out at the POTUS-Pope summit. It’s a topic that is expected to affect Vatican-US relations and impact the narrative of the Obama presidency in the weeks and months ahead.
To hear Americans tell it, President Obama’s Vatican visit came at an ominous moment for the future of his presidential politics.
On March 23, Nate Silver told readers of FiveThirtyEight that he and his team “think the Republicans are now slight favorites to win at least six seats and capture the [Senate].” He noted that “The Democrats’ position has deteriorated somewhat since last summer, with President Obama’s approval ratings down to 42 or 43 percent from an average of about 45 percent before.”
Silver is considered a sort of oracle. Back in 2012, he and his team anticipated the electoral results of all 50 states. Now, the folks at FiveThirtyEight believe there is a 60% chance the GOP will take back the Senate.
Inside Washington, Democratic leadership received the news with shock. A Huffington Post headline read: “Nate Silver Predicts GOP Senate Win, [and] Democrats Promptly Freak Out.” While HuffPo’s Jack Mirkinson said the results could deliver “a big blow to the final two years of the Obama presidency,” Silver and his team cautioned that their estimate “only makes the GOP ‘slightly favored’ to win.” Mirkinson observed that, “there are still very many months to go until November.”
But, Silver hasn’t been the sole source of menacing news for the Democrats. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reported that “economic unease has risen in recent months among women generally; college-educated women in particularly; those with lower incomes; Latinos; and, most sharply, African-Americans,” according to the Washington Wire. In 2008 and 2012, each of those groups helped Obama secure the 270 electoral votes needed for election. But, those constituencies are important for Obama’s allies, as well. The Wall Street Journal blog called voter unease a “downside for Democrats,” noting that “discouraged voters can easily turn into non-voters in a midterm election.” The March 5-9 poll reported that “Among Republicans, 55% expressed high interest in November’s elections; [while] among Democrats, the number was just 43%.”
The Wall Street Journal/NBC News research reflects a wider set of data, however. Just this week, RealClearPolitics polls projected depressions in presidential approval ratings at home and abroad. On the eve of the Vatican stopover, a Fox News poll showed that Obama’s approval ratings have hit their lowest point since he took office. As an old maxim has it, numbers don’t lie. And, at the moment, they’re pointing toward a truth that must be hard for both the Obama team and the DNC to stomach.
Bottom line: The GOP stands to take back congressional leadership at mid-term. If it does so, the ensuing transformation of the political power grid would shut down the remainder of President Obama’s tenure, ending it in tight gridlock. That would prove perilous for his presidential profile. Historians would assess his executive management skills as either ineffective at best or incompetent at worst. To avoid their harsh judgment, Obama needs to kick start DNC campaign efforts on the home front or boost his standing around the globe.
The first route isn’t viable. Unlike in 2008, Democratic candidates seem bent on driving up distance between Obama and themselves. Instead of spotlighting campaign events across America, he has been orbiting Europe, attending the Nuclear Security Summit at the Hague and the “G7” meeting in Brussels, Belgium. Those excursions are just the most recent episodes of an on-going narrative, however. This week, the National Taxpayer Union Foundation reported that he has spent more time abroad in half a decade than all other presidents of the modern era.
Instead of supporting the campaigns of his political allies back home, President Obama is wrapping up the week meeting the Pope at the Vatican, the Italian President and Prime Minister in Rome, and the king of Saudi Arabia. The first of those four meetings stands out from the others given certain executive policies conflicting with the consciences of Catholics, which reached a judicial crescendo this week. (More on that later.) But, the visit might send the clearest signal of presidential desperation.
When President Obama’s approval ratings were riding high, Vatican appointments never got onto his list of priorities. That was a marked contrast from his predecessor’s tenure in office, which saw six papal encounters – three each during the pontificates of Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Obama met with Francis’ predecessor just once back in the summer of 2009.
Viewed from the outside, associations with a pontificate mired in sexual abuse crises and Vatileak scandals seemed more like liabilities than assets
to the President’s political ambitions. But, the narrative has changed now. Since his election to the Chair of St Peter in Rome on the night of March 13, Pope Francis has been breathing new life into an ancient institution, seizing the world’s attention, and commanding international headlines in the process. And so, the President wants back in at the Vatican.
To be sure, Pope Francis has accomplished the near impossible: In his first twelve months in office, he has circumvented his predecessor’s public perception problem in the midst of the aftershocks of crises and scandals; he has exceeded almost all sitting politicians’ polling numbers; and, he has re-directed the bark of Peter while managing to keep it on its traditional course. Those successes have been met with much recognition.
At mid-summer, Vanity Fair named him its “Person of the Year” several months ahead of schedule. Both Time and The Advocate followed suit in December. In the winter, Argentina’s National Congress nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. And, recent months have seen the release of new studies from the Pew Research Center and Zogby Analytics. Pew found the Pope’s approval ratings among American Catholics stand at 85%. 71% think the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio represents a major change for the Church. Zogby learned that Pope Francis has affected charitable donations among US Catholics and Latino-American Catholics, in particular. As I reported last week, giving practices among some 1,003 poll respondents increased over the last twelve months, owing in large part to Pope Francis’ message and example of compassion for the poor. Last Thursday, CNNMoney’s Fortune magazine chose him to lead its short list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. As the Boston Globe’s Associate Editor, John L. Allen, noted, “Polling in various parts of the world show approval ratings that would be the envy of any politician or celebrity.” He added that, “In terms of public opinion, Francis is already on the cusp of achieving the iconic status of Nelson Mandela, a figure of unquestioned moral authority.”
It is within this context that Air Force 1 touched down at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport during the earliest stateside hours. As the executive aircraft descended, President Obama might have been hoping that the newfound papal stardust would brush off on his embattled presidency, effecting change back home.
To be sure, Obama’s photo-op with the world’s most popular pastor could revitalize his profile on these shores. But, although the first meeting between the two men was historic for Vatican-US relations – marking three decades of diplomatic ties between the US and the Holy See – President Obama might be praying that the images of the event will prove salvific for his presidential future.
At last count, Catholics constituted the single largest religious group in 33 of the 50 states of the union. Democrats in each one of those states will face a referendum on President Obama in November. Of those Catholics, the lion’s share of them under the age of 35 is Latino. Both the Latino and the Catholic vote, not to mention the youth vote, were instrumental in cementing Democratic electoral success in the last two presidential campaigns. In 2008, 53% of the Catholic vote went to then-Senator Obama. But, that number fell behind a little bit in 2012 when 50% of the Catholic bloc went to him. Images of the President glad-handing the Latin American pontiff could ameliorate uneasiness about the Democratic agenda among Latino and Catholic voters and reinvigorate campaign efforts in advance of November. If that happens, President Obama will have shored up the support of an essential baseline constituency.
But, to be sure, the President will need to do much more than signal strong relations with the Pope once he returns to Washington. He’ll have to address – read, relieve – mounting tensions between his administration and American Catholics.
On the eve of the President’s arrival at the Vatican, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two landmark cases affecting the free exercise of religion. The core issue in both cases was the constitutionality of an executive mandate impinging on the consciences of employers. Despite the mandates’s connection to the civil liberty issue of women’s access to birth control, the executive policy elicited the outcry of liberal Catholics as well as conservative ones.
Writing for the left-of-center National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters registered outrage with the executive directive when he said that “The issue of conscience protections is so foundational, I do not see how I ever could, in good conscience, vote for this man [i.e., President Obama] again.” And even MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said that it is “frightening when the state tells the Church what to do.”
However, the mandate’s most vocal opposition came from the Vatican’s highest-ranking American prelate.
Cardinal Raymond Burke is the Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. That makes him the rough equivalent of the Catholic Church’s chief justice and one of the most significant figures in the Roman Curia. In recent weeks, he has been outspoken about his concern about the direction President Obama has been taking back home. In an interview with Poland’s Polonia Christiana magazine, Cardinal Burke said that
“It is true that the policies of the President of the United States of America have become progressively more hostile toward Christian civilization. He appears to be a totally secularized man who aggressively promotes anti-life and anti-family policies.”
The cardinal added that “Now he wants to restrict the exercise of the freedom of worship; that is, he holds that one is free to act according to his conscience within the confines of his place of worship but that, once the person leaves the place of worship, the government can constrain him to act against his rightly-formed conscience, even in the most serious of moral questions.”
He concluded that “Such policies would have been unimaginable in the United States even 40 years ago. It is true that many faithful Catholics, with strong and clear leadership from their Bishops and priests, are reacting against the ever-growing religious persecution in the U.S.”
A more moderate Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York sent the same message when he sat down with NBC’s David Gregory on ‘Meet the Press.’ In a fifteen minute interview televised on March 9, America’s Bishop told the NBC anchor that he has growing concerns about the President’s policies. When Gregory asked Dolan whether he sensed an imbalance between civil liberties and religious freedom in America, he responded saying that, “yes, I’m afraid there may be. We may be coming to that. … I would have to admit a certain amount of … trepidation, that perhaps we’re now moving in that direction.”
In effect, then, both the liberal and the conservative/moderate wings of the Church have been communicating the same talking points: Obama’s HHS mandate is an affront to Catholics and it will affect his connections with a core constituency. Even the Vatican received the memo, which is informative, since the Roman Curia has not always been quick to lend an ear to American bishops.
Less than 24 hours before Obama arrived at the Apostolic Palace, the Vatican situated the meeting within the context of tension. Vatican Radio announced that the two leaders will meet “in the context of a complex phase of the [Obama] administration’s relations with the Church of the United States, marked, in particular, by controversy on the implementation of health care reform (the ‘Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,’ commonly known as ‘Obamacare’) having to do with rules on mandatory health care coverage of sterilization, contraception, and abortion.”
Just hours after the 52-minute POTUS-Pope summit concluded, the Holy See Press Office issued an official comunicato on the audience. In part, the communique stated that “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 President Obama headed out of the Vatican at the conclusion of his visit with the Pope, the stateliness of his surroundings – contrasting with the media’s perception of a simple and unassuming parish priest from the streets of Buenos Aires – might have given him pause to wonder. Are the mandates of his executive office able to keep pace with the ancient order of the Catholic Church? Is the perceived political payoff of the HHS mandate well worth the risk of injuring his ties with one of the nation’s single largest religious constituencies? Given the depths to which his polling numbers have dipped, can he afford to affront the consciences of Catholics and impede their free exercise of religion?
To be certain, Obama might need to rethink his political game plan. Whether he will have the humility to do so remains to be seen. Time will tell.
But, there’s a clue to be discovered amidst the papal pageantry. Just before parting, President Obama extended a gift of seeds to the Pope. (A sign of a relationship reborn?) And, Pope Francis imparted a copy of his recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel) to the President. In that magisterial text, the Pope linked economic issues to the Church’s Gospel of Life, proposing that a sound economic agenda must be based on respect for the inviolable right to life of every human person from conception until natural death. In a pointed comment in that document, the Pope states that “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.”