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How might the pope and the president work together?

March 27, 2014 at 6:18 PM EDT
With public opinion ratings “the envy of every politician in Washington,” Pope Francis received President Obama at the Vatican for an hour-long visit. Gwen Ifill talks to Rev. Thomas Reese of the National Catholic Reporter and Stephen Schneck of the Catholic University of America to make sense of the meeting and assess what unites the pontiff and the president.
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GWEN IFILL: For more on what the pope and the president talked about today, and what it means, we turn to a pair of scholars. Stephen Schneck is director of the Institute for Political Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America. And Thomas Reese is a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for The National Catholic Reporter.

Thomas Reese, we heard the president say today, “I am an admirer to the pope.”

Is the admiration mutual?

REV. THOMAS REESE, The National Catholic Reporter: I think it is.

The visit was described as very cordial by the Vatican. The video showed them interacting in a very positive and friendly way. I think this was a meeting where two people, you know, both of whom had walked the slums of their favorite cities, President Obama as a community organizer in South Chicago, and the pope as an archbishop in Buenos Aires, both of them walking through their favorite city, but the slums of their favorite city.

I think they had a lot in common and a lot to share.

GWEN IFILL: Yet, yet we do pay attention to the gulf between the two men. How wide is it really, Stephen Schneck?

STEPHEN SCHNECK, Catholic University of America: You know, I think probably the most important thing to realize is that, at one level, they both share kind of an interesting vision.

That is, both gentlemen, I think, take the measure of civilization to be the quality of life for the poorest and the most vulnerable in the world. And so that’s something that they both share. But the differences are there too. One could argue, for example, that the pope is a little bit to the left of the president on a number of issues, like peace and economic policies and so forth. But…

GWEN IFILL: Refugees.

STEPHEN SCHNECK: Refugees, for example.

But, of course, the social issues, particularly abortion and, you know, the concern that the bishops of the United States have about the contraception mandate, these are items of important difference between the two.

GWEN IFILL: Why do you two think that the public statements were so — seemed to differ so much from each other? The Vatican statement was kind of more hard-edged than the president’s?

REV. THOMAS REESE: Well, the Vatican’s statement gave almost the equal number of words to international issues and to the domestic problems that the U.S. bishops have with the Obama administration.

But that doesn’t mean that that was the way the time was divided up. In point of fact, it looks like the pope and the president really didn’t talk about the Affordable Care Act. That was left to the secretary of state, the Vatican secretary of state. And my guess is, they probably only spent about five minutes talking about that.

The Vatican really wants to focus on international issues. But, at the same time, they want to support the local bishops when they’re in conflict with their governments. So they brought us these issues at the request of the U.S. bishops.

GWEN IFILL: So the discussion about the contraception mandate, to the degree that, wherever it happened, was mostly a concession to the American bishops?

STEPHEN SCHNECK: I think it’s quite clear that the Vatican doesn’t want to have any kind of a gap between what the Vatican itself is saying and what the American bishops are saying. In other words, they don’t want to undercut the American bishops in their concern about these things.

So I pretty much agree with Father Reese on these things. I think the sharper elbows were thrown downstairs at the staff level meetings. I think that the conversation between the president and the pope was warm and friendly.

GWEN IFILL: To the extent that these two men have a lot in common and a lot different, I wonder how much that would come across. Both of them were treated with great hagiography, I guess you would describe it, when they first rose to their level, and certainly Pope Francis is still enjoying that.

Is that something that reflects positively on the president in a meeting like this?

REV. THOMAS REESE: Well, I think that both of them have inspired a lot of hope in people. Certainly, Pope Francis has gotten, you know, people loving him all over the world. His public opinion ratings are the envy of every politician in Washington.

And Obama had that for a while and kind of lost it. So this is something that both of them have and are concerned — you know, and have in common.

GWEN IFILL: But to the extent that the pope comes in for any criticisms at all, especially within — among Catholics, it’s from conservative Catholics, who are maybe not embracing his message as much.

And they are the same ones who perhaps are not embracing President Obama.

STEPHEN SCHNECK: Yes, I think that’s interesting. And that’s a good comment, right, correct analysis, that the people who have the greatest problems with the pope right now in the Catholic Church are those people who are also having the strongest objections to President Obama’s policy here in the United States.

GWEN IFILL: When you talk about foreign policy and how that is what the Vatican wants to focus on, let’s pick off some of this. In Lebanon, it’s about persecution of Christians. Right?

REV. THOMAS REESE: Well, that and also the refugees. The pope is very concerned about all the refugees coming out of Syria and the need to care for them.

I mean, I think, you know, Speaker Boehner has invited him to speak to Congress. I think he would come to Congress and say, we want you to appropriate more aid to help these refugees. You know, they’re hungry. They need shelter. And I think he would be very strong speaking for that kind of help from the U.S. government to helping these people in Lebanon and Syria and Turkey.

He’s also very concerned about Christians. And they’re being caught between all these fights that are happening in the Middle East.

GWEN IFILL: What about the Israeli-Palestinian ongoing glacial discussions, negotiations?  Where is the pope in that? And does it matter that the U.S. is at the table, but it is moving very slowly?

STEPHEN SCHNECK: Right.

The pope of course is visiting the Holy Land in May, and so this is something that is high on the Vatican’s agenda right now, the peace process in all of its details. Now, where exactly the Vatican is going to come down on that, I think, is anybody’s guess at this point. But, clearly, that interest is something that was part of the conversation between the president and the pope.

GWEN IFILL: So what does that say about the relationship between U.S. Catholics and the pope and to the extent that the president represents that in a visit like this?

We have seen presidents for decades go and do this very thing, repeated visits, airing differences, mostly agreeing, and smiling for the cameras. What difference does it make when an American president goes to meet a pope?

REV. THOMAS REESE: Well, I think American Catholics, like all Americans, would like to see the Vatican and the pope and our government working together to help people to work for peace.

That’s — you know, I think that’s what people want to see happen in the Middle East, in Africa, all over the world.

GWEN IFILL: Is it possible that we, as Americans, sometimes take papal statements, and we translate them in an American context in a way that wasn’t intended?

STEPHEN SCHNECK: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Give me an example.

STEPHEN SCHNECK: Inevitably, whatever papal statements are issued find themselves, you know, caught up in the maelstrom of American politics. Certainly been true.

GWEN IFILL: So, for instance, we heard the president say, who am I to judge about gays?

STEPHEN SCHNECK: Exactly. And that became part of the conversation about same-sex marriage here in the United States.

And, so, inevitably those sorts of things do in fact happen.

GWEN IFILL: So, in the end, is it in the interest of both sides, if there are — these are two sides, to paper over differences, legitimate policy differences that exist?

REV. THOMAS REESE: Well, you know, the Vatican has dealt with governments for over 1,000 years. And it knows how to chew gum and walk at the same time.

You can disagree with people, but you can also work with them. It’s not like the U.S. Congress. You know, the Vatican wants to work with the United States, wants to work with Obama to work for peace, and for development, and better economy, and, you know, less inequality, all of these kinds of things. And there’s no problem in doing that.

STEPHEN SCHNECK: I think, actually, I’m going to have a slight disagreement with Father Reese on this.

I think that the Vatican isn’t interested in papering over some of the differences. Some of these differences are matters of principle, and it’s not something that can be — the smiles and the cooperations, this is, of course, something that has to be done. But the differences, those differences remain. And they’re important, from the Vatican’s perspective.

GWEN IFILL: Stephen Schneck of Catholic University and Thomas Reese, Catholic Reporter, Father Reese, thank you both very much.

STEPHEN SCHNECK: Delightful.