Pope Francis, Obama have much in common

Pope Francis and President Obama met at the Vatican on Thursday, March 27.

Mar 27, 2014

WASHINGTON: Pope Francis and President Obama met at the Vatican on Thursday, March 27. Everybody from political heavy-weights in Washington to Catholics in the pews were closely watching. What did a spiritual rock star riding a wave of global enthusiasm and a beleaguered second-term president facing a divided Congress talk about behind closed doors?

A Catholic and a Protestant who disagree over flashpoints such as abortion and can’t speak the same language might seem like an odd couple for fruitful dialogue. But Obama would find a warmer reception from Pope Francis than he does from a vocal minority of US culture-warrior bishops and conservative political leaders who sometimes act as if God is a Republican. Though the Pontiff would have surely brought up Church teaching on abortion and raised objections US bishops have about contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act, he would have found plenty of common ground with a president who wants to raise the minimum wage, pass immigration reform and calls inequality the “defining challenge of our time.”

“When it comes to economic justice, Pope Francis is more progressive than Obama. The Pope flustered more than a few conservative political donors when he challenged those who defend “trickle-down” economic theories and unfettered markets. These views, the Pontiff said, have “never been confirmed by the facts” and show a “crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.”

Unlike some high-profile Catholics in Congress who cut taxes for the rich and food assistance for struggling families, Pope Francis warned about an “economy of exclusion and inequality.”

This Pope is not a maverick.

For more than a century, traditional Catholic social teaching has supported living wages for workers and a positive role for government. While Catholics such as House Speaker John Boehner oppose Obama’s push to raise the minimum wage, the Church has supported living wages since 1891, when Pope Leo XIII recognised the right of workers to earn enough to provide for a family. Today’s federal minimum wage fails that basic moral test.

Obama would have found a receptive audience from the Pontiff on efforts to reform a US immigration system. In his first trip as Pope outside of Rome, Francis denounced a “globalisation of indifference” during an emotional visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where an estimated 20,000 migrants have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa en route to Europe. A tour by US bishops of the US-Mexico border next week will include a Mass for migrants who have died attempting to cross the desert.

The White House and the Vatican also have shared goals around international diplomacy. When Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Vatican counterpart, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, in January, discussions included negotiations between Israel and Palestine, and the Syrian civil war. Obama’s efforts on nuclear deterrence and disarmament have been praised by Vatican officials.

Christian culture warriors and politicians who reduce the expansive Catholic social justice tradition to bumper-sticker simplicity and think they are holier than the pope would have learnt an important lesson.--By John Gehring, USA Today

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