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The Pope And The President: Common Ground But A Clear Divide

Despite some differences, President Obama and Pope Francis shared a laugh during their Thursday meeting at the Vatican. Obama called himself a "great admirer" of the pope.
Gabriel Bouys
AFP/Getty Images
Despite some differences, President Obama and Pope Francis shared a laugh during their Thursday meeting at the Vatican. Obama called himself a "great admirer" of the pope.

President Obama's Vatican meeting with Pope Francis wasn't without a dose of irony.

The U.S. president, once the world leader whose vow of "hope" and "change" excited millions, seemed eclipsed Thursday in that department by the pope.

The pope certainly is polling better than Obama among Americans. A recent St. Leo University poll placed the pope's approval rating at 85 percent among Catholics and 65 percent among all Americans. By contrast, Obama's approval rating among all Americans was 47 percent in the same poll.

Another irony: While the pope's approval ratings are higher than Obama's, Americans, including many Catholics, agree more with Obama on certain social issues than with the pope.

For instance, on reproductive rights, more Americans are closer to Obama's stance than to the pope's. Sixty-three percent of Americans say they would not like to see the court completely overturn Roe v. Wade, according to Pew Research polling. More than a third of U.S. Catholics, 36 percent, say abortion should be legal in most cases, according to an October 2013 Quinnipiac University poll; an additional 16 percent say abortion should be legal in all cases.

When it comes to same-sex marriage, Quinnipiac reports 60 percent of U.S. Catholics support it — a higher level than the general population.

To some extent, the pope benefits from his relative newness, and from the appearance of being a fresh break from his recent predecessors. His eschewing of papal lavishness and call for the Roman Catholic Church to focus more on social justice have excited millions around the world.

By contrast, the realities of being a U.S. president in the 21st century, of being ultimately responsible for drone attacks and controversial NSA surveillance practices, have left even many of Obama's strongest supporters disappointed that the president hasn't changed the world as much as they had hoped.

As Michael Anthony Novak, a theology professor at St. Leo, told It's All Politics, it's more the rule than the exception that a president and pope wouldn't have much ideological overlap.

"Popes and presidents don't perfectly line up," Novak told me. "Whenever they get together, it's a fairly rare thing that their interests would perfectly align."

The kind of alignment between President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II at their first meeting, when they seemed to be of one mind on directly confronting communism, is rare, Novak said.

The U.S. president heads a superpower with vast economic and military might. The pope, meanwhile, heads the world's smallest country, Vatican City, but as leader of his church he has great moral power even beyond its adherents.

"Obama sounded out the Vatican last year about the idea of intervention in Syria," because the pope's support and moral authority might help the president make his case for action, Novak said.

"Did the Vatican think this fit the concept of just-war theory and so forth? And in that case, Francis seemed to be strongly against the idea of the West intervening in a strong military way," he said.

It was another area in which the president and the pope differed.

One area where the onetime Chicago community organizer and the former Buenos Aires parish priest align, however, is in the need to address economic inequality.

But while they both recognize the problem, the pope is certainly to the left of the president in his critique of capitalism. Still, their concern for social justice represents an opportunity for the two men to work together.

Novak notes that Obama met with the pope for a longer time than the Vatican usually allots for such meetings, even with other heads of state: "I don't know what it says yet but it says something."

Still, he says, the Vatican knows Obama is closer to the end of his presidency than its start.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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