WASHINGTON — When a White House speechwriter turned in a draft of a major speech on economic policy this month, President Obama sent it back with an unusual instruction: Add a reference to the pope.
The final version of the speech quoted directly from Pope Francis’ recent letter to the faithful: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” he said.
The citation marked a notable development in Obama’s complex and sometimes confrontational relationship with the Roman Catholic Church: After several years of high-profile clashes with U.S. bishops, Obama is seizing the chance to highlight common ground with the bishop of Rome.
Quoting the pope isn’t likely to yield direct electoral dividends for Obama’s party — the once-vaunted “Catholic vote” largely disappeared long ago. But in a string of effusive praise, the president has made clear he sees the pope as a like-minded thinker and potentially useful ally in a crucial battle of ideas, particularly on the importance of shrinking the gulf between rich and poor, a subject Obama has pushed repeatedly but with limited success.
White House officials described the president’s praise of the pope as merely a happy coincidence with no political motives. Obama, who has never spoken to Francis, simply found the pontiff’s recent statements impressive, they said.
“It’s something that is very much on the president’s mind,” said Cecilia Muñoz, chief domestic policy advisor to the president. “And, happily for us, it’s something that’s also on the pope’s mind.”
Some Catholic leaders see a mixed blessing. The Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, said he was pleased to see Obama, like so many others, praise the pope’s message.
He noted that the language of the president’s speeches had long echoed some Catholic social teachings and that the church and the White House had found common ground on several issues, including immigration reform and support for social service programs. White House officials emphasized that same point. But Snyder expressed wariness about thrusting Francis’ words into the political fray.
“The danger I see in it is that the pope is not a politician,” Snyder said. “When the pope speaks, there’s a consistent teaching. And the danger would be other people pick and choose, ‘I like this, but I don’t like that.’”
American presidents and politicians have a long history of doing just that. A host of Democrats have clashed with the bishops over abortion. President Reagan worked in tandem with Pope John Paul II to loosen the Soviet Union’s hold on Eastern Europe but paid little heed to U.S. bishops’ opposition to his nuclear buildup.
President George W. Bush borrowed the phrase “culture of life,” made famous by John Paul II, to discuss his antiabortion stance, without noting the pope’s teaching against the death penalty, which Bush carried out several times as governor of Texas.
Obama’s interest in the pope’s message on economic justice surfaced in early October during a television interview. In response to a question from CNBC’s John Harwood, the president said he had “been hugely impressed with the pope’s pronouncements” and Francis’ “incredible sense of empathy to the least of these, to the poor.” White House officials said aides had not prepped Obama in advance on the pope’s writings.
This month, Obama went further, saying in an interview on MSNBC that Francis was showing himself to be an “extraordinarily thoughtful and soulful messenger of peace and justice.”
Aides, who would describe White House discussions only on condition of anonymity, said Obama had talked about the pope with members of his inner circle, which includes Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, a Catholic whose brother Kevin is a priest and former high-ranking official in the archdiocese in St. Paul, Minn.
The president, the aides said, has read the ample news coverage of the pope’s activities, including reports on Francis’ apostolic exhortation on economic justice, which was his first major writing since he became head of the church in March.
Obama, a Christian who attended a Congregationalist church before coming to Washington and now occasionally attends an Episcopal church near the White House, has shown interest in Catholic thinkers and teaching before. He has said that Catholic social doctrines influenced his work as a community organizer in Chicago, and Catholic writers have discerned that influence in some of his speeches, particularly his second inaugural address.
His push for universal access to healthcare won support from some Catholic groups that was crucial to its passage. But the healthcare law has also been at the center of a long-running and difficult fight with the church.
U.S. bishops have criticized the White House for the provision in the law that requires employers — including some Catholic institutions, although not churches — to offer health insurance that covers birth control.
Although the rule exempts religiously affiliated institutions from paying directly for birth-control coverage, several religious groups argue it still violates their religious freedom. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear one challenge to that aspect of the law, which takes effect in January.
The rift has created “major problems” in the White House’s relationship with the church, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The law’s distinction between churches, which are exempt, and other institutions such as schools and hospitals creates a “two-tier” church, diminishing the status of the groups that carry out the mission Francis has been emphasizing, she said.
“President Obama and many others quote Pope Francis these days based on the pope’s concern for the poor. This concern is a core component of our religion and we should not have to compromise it to continue to serve the common good,” she said.
Some observers have noted possible personal parallels between the superstar pope and the onetime superstar politician. One is riding a tide of goodwill generated by the sort of promise of hope and change that has ebbed for the other.
“I think world leaders are impressed by someone who got into office and immediately avoided the trappings of that office,” said Michael Peppard, who teaches about politics and the papacy at Fordham University.
“People who are in power are in awe of that and have a lot of respect for that. I think Obama probably wants to tap into some of the energy, and tap into some of it for his own message.”
To others, Obama’s interest in the pope exemplifies the way some liberals, cheered by Francis’ new focus, have expressed their hope for a church that puts less emphasis on issues like abortion or gay rights and more on immigration, welfare or poverty programs.
Obama is the “preeminent example of a liberal falling in love with Francis,” said Candida Moss, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame.
Of course, even praise for the pope’s economic liberalism comes with caveats. The day after Obama praised the pope in his speech, he made clear in the MSNBC interview that he didn’t share all of Francis’ critique of capitalist culture.
“We live in a market economy that is the greatest generator of wealth in history. We’re risk takers. We’re entrepreneurs. And we’re rugged individualists,” Obama said.
Said Moss: “It must be amazing for him to have the opportunity to say, ‘I’m a little more right wing than Pope Francis.’”