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Be Prepared: What you need to know before Pope Francis meets President Obama

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 26, 2014

Count on it: Immediately after tomorrow’s meeting between Pope Francis and President Obama, the spinmasters of the Obama administration—the same talented propagandists who successfully portrayed an inexperienced junior senator as a political savior—will be working furiously to convince the world that the Pope is Obama’s political ally. If you want to know what really happened during that meeting, don’t pay much attention to the early reports. Wait for the later, subtler comments from Rome.

At the White House the search for political advantage is a full-time business. For a President with dismal public-approval ratings, a meeting with the phenomenally popular Pope is a golden opportunity. Doubly so because Catholics are a key “swing” constituency, and any kind words that the Pontiff says about the Obama agenda could be used to prop up troubled Democratic prospects. The Pope will say some kind words—he always does—and those words will be quickly relayed to the media in press releases and “talking-points” memos. That’s how politicians operate. (To be fair, a conservative Republican administration would act much the same way.) Church leaders don’t indulge in the same sort of blatant politicking. So the first reports from Rome, influenced by that initial PR barrage, will probably accentuate the positive aspects of the meeting.

Don’t be overly concerned about those first stories. Wait a few hours. Read carefully through the statements released by the Vatican after the meeting. Notice which points are emphasized, and pay special attention if any of those points were missing from the White House releases.

George Weigel, who knows his way around the Roman Curia, says that Vatican officials are fully prepared for the Obama visit, and recognize that the White House will spin the meeting to its best advantage. Weigel expects that Obama will face tough questioning, particularly on the issue of religious freedom, and will learn that the Pontiff’s personality “combines winsomeness and steel.” It won’t be an easy conversation for the President, however his allies portray it.

Weigel reports that during a recent meeting between secretaries of state—John Kerry for the US, Cardinal Pietro Parolin for the Holy See—it was the prelate who “drove the entire conversation,” speaking at length about the Church’s opposition to the contraceptive mandate in Obama’s health-care plan. Naturally Kerry did not tell reporters about that aspect of the discussion. But the Obama administration had been put on notice. The President goes into this meeting forewarned that he cannot expect a bland endorsement from the Holy Father.

America’s leading Vatican-watcher, John Allen of the Boston Globe, predicts that the March 27 meeting will not produce any immediate or dramatic results. He writes: “It’s more plausible that the relationship will continue to be a complicated ballet, with each side looking to extract what it can get, driven more by strategic interests than any deeper spirit of common cause.”

One more suggestion for those who are carefully watching for the news from Rome: Take nothing for granted. This is Pope Francis; be prepared for a surprise.

The US bishops’ conference provides some useful background on the history of meetings between US presidents and Roman Pontiffs. The first such encounter involved President Woodrow Wilson and Pope Benedict XV, in January 1919. Forty years would pass before President Dwight Eisenhower met with Pope Pius XII. Since then every US president has met with a Pope at least once.

Not surprisingly, Blessed John Paul II met with more American presidents than any other Pontiff: a total of 15 meetings with Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II. From the American side, President George W. Bush participated in the greatest number of meetings: 6 sessions with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

President Obama will be meeting Pope Francis for the 1st time. He met with Pope Benedict in July 2009.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Mar. 27, 2014 7:12 AM ET USA

    Any chance we'll see these headlines, Phil? "Vicar of Christ meets with vitiated Christian"? Or perhaps, "Popular Pontiff meets with perfidious pol"?