Opinion: As Obama meets the pope, Francis’ smile masks a serious message

Pope Francis poses with President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry at the Vatican.
Pope Francis poses with President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry at the Vatican.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis a little more than a year ago, the first thing that struck those who knew him well was his unexpected, beatific smile.

“In Argentina, he didn’t smile like that,” Sergio Rubin, the pope’s biographer, said this week at a conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “That was the big surprise.”

Since then, the pope has mostly kept on smiling — in homilies, in audiences, in meetings with the homeless and the poor.

If you look at the pictures from Francis’ meeting with President Obama on Thursday, though, the smile is there only some of the time. It’s almost as though the pontiff was reminding himself that Obama needed this meeting more than he did, and he didn’t want to give the impression that the church’s disagreements with the White House could be erased in a single hour of cordiality.


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But let’s not read too much into a few pictures. Look, instead, at the starchy statement the Vatican media office issued before the meeting. It noted that the two men were meeting during “a complex phase of the administration’s relations with the church of the United States, marked, in particular, by controversy on the implementation of healthcare reform (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare) having to do with rules on mandatory healthcare coverage of sterilization, contraception and abortion; and on other issues at the center of public debate in the United States, such as the legalization of homosexual marriages.” Ouch!

And look at the parting gift the pope gave the president: a bound copy of his 2013 letter to the faithful, “The Joy of the Gospel” — the one that became famous for its critique of trickle-down economics.

“I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I’m deeply frustrated,” Obama said. “I’m sure it will give me strength and calm me down.”

If the president actually does read the pontiff’s letter, he’ll find that though it’s joyful, it isn’t always comforting. Most of the letter is a bracing call to Roman Catholics to take up the challenge of spreading the Gospel. There’s a whole chapter, for example, on how to give more effective sermons; that’s advice any politician might find useful.

But there’s also a strong reminder that the church still believes that there are “objective moral norms which are valid for everyone.” And there’s a full-throated defense of traditional Catholic teaching on abortion, which Francis complains is too often criticized as “ideological, obscurantist and conservative.”

“This defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right,” the pope argues. “Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be.”

So, Mr. President, happy reading. But you may find yourself challenged as much as calmed, and that may be what Pope Francis intended.



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