On Thursday, President Barack Obama will make his second visit to the Vatican, and his first to meet Pope Francis, who has become a relative rarity in the modern era: a media-darling pontiff. The trip comes at an opportune time for Obama, who could use a popular, allegedly left-leaning spiritual leader to help him gain traction with his otherwise moribund agenda. But no one should expect Obama to walk away with much from Francis besides the usual expressions of diplomatic good will.
A visit to the Vatican has become de rigueur for American presidents over the years. The first visit to the Holy See by an incumbent president took place in 1919, when Woodrow Wilson visited Benedict XV during the period in which the Vatican's sovereignty was still an open question after the Italian Risorgimento in 1870. Since Dwight Eisenhower's visit with John XXIII at the Vatican in 1959, every one of his successors has made the trek to Rome. Obama's predecessor George W. Bush made three trips to the Holy See, and hosted three papal visits to the U.S.
Obama met with now–Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in the first year of his presidency, but the stakes and the calculations were much different in 2009. Benedict XVI had very little of the affection and sympathy that today's media has showered on Francis since his succession last year. The abuse scandal weighed heavily on the Vatican at that time, as did a financial scandal involving the Vatican Bank. The sense was that the pope's supposed conservatism was making the church into a figurative fortress, rather than a relevant force in the lives of the faithful. Obama, in contrast, exemplified the dynamism of secular hope and change, and had become the toast of Europe. Just a few months later, Obama would win the Nobel Peace Prize, an aspirational decision by the committee that they had reason to regret not long afterward, when Obama ramped up troop levels in Afghanistan and defended drone warfare and "kill lists."
This time, it's Obama who needs a boost — but it won't come easy.
Obama has linked Francis to his efforts to fight income inequality, explicitly invoking the pope in a big economic speech last December. The president instructed his speechwriters to include the reference, hoping to leverage the pontiff's focus on the Catholic Church's doctrine on social justice. Some of Obama's agenda, such as proposals concerning living wages, will definitely find a sympathetic ear with Francis.
Obama will also surely emphasize his experience in fighting for social justice. The New York Times gave this history a sympathetic look this past weekend, shining a light on a little-known episode from Obama's work before his political career began. Although not Catholic himself, Obama worked for the Diocese of Chicago in its outreach and service to black Catholics, part of the community-organizing work Obama did at the time. The Times' Jason Horowitz reports that the period "played a powerful role in his political formation," and that the current director of that office credits Obama with playing a "key" role in developing the skills used to attract new members.
The timing of this article seems to be part of a charm offensive aimed at the Vatican, but so far it's not exactly warming up his hosts. Horowitz includes a reaction from a senior official at the Holy See, who pointedly notes that the upcoming visit won't be the lovefest Obama would prefer. "We're not in the old days of the great alliance," Horowitz was told, a reference to Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II's united front against communism. Instead, the Vatican wants to confront Obama on more recent issues — the ObamaCare contraception mandate, certainly, which has American bishops as outspoken on political issues as we have seen in quite some time, as well as the drone policies of the U.S.
Not all of this pushback has been anonymous, either. Last week, Cardinal Raymond Burke told a Polish magazine that the U.S. under Obama's policies has "become progressively more hostile toward Christian civilization." Burke heads the Apostolic Signatura, the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church and the court of final resort at the Holy See. Burke called Obama "a totally secularized man who aggressively promotes anti-life and anti-family policies," and who "wants to restrict the exercise of the freedom of religion to freedom of worship."
This signals a bumpy ride for Obama, who won't have much leverage over the pope. Despite the glowing media coverage of his year-old pontificate, Francis has moved with vigor to address his political vulnerabilities. John Allen reported for The Boston Globe that Francis has appointed Cardinal Sean O'Malley to the Vatican panel on sexual abuse cases, which "brings instant credibility to the effort." Francis also appointed an abuse victim to the panel, Irish activist Marie Collins; her addition means that women comprise half of that panel, and three of the other four appointees from Francis have been women as well.
President Obama clearly hopes that some of Pope Francis' popularity will rub off on him. Obama may meet a gentle shepherd in Francis, but find that he has entered a political lion's den instead.