President Obama visits Pope Francis

That headline fires the imagination.

The visit was the long overdue, according to the protocol and history of presidents meeting with popes over the decades. Former Ambassador Francis Rooney made that point in a USA Today op-ed column last October.

The past few years have seen cordial but cooling relations between the United States and the Vatican. Since President Obama took office, he has visited the Vatican just once, and the administration has demonstrated little more than a perfunctory interest in the Holy See’s diplomatic role in the world. This is a lost opportunity at a critical time for America. U.S. foreign policy has much to gain from its relationship with the Holy See, the governing body of the Catholic Church. No institution on earth has both the international stature and the global reach of the Holy See — the “soft power” of moral influence and authority to promote religious freedom, human liberties, and related values that Americans and our allies uphold worldwide.

Ambassador Rooney was my guest on radio to talk about all this, because he has unique insights into this relationship, and he feels strongly about the importance of maintaining strong US-Vatican relations.

His commentary deserves attention.

The United States and the Holy See remain two of the most significant institutions in world history, one a beacon of democracy and progress, the other a sanctum of faith and allegiance to timeless principles. Despite these differences between the first modern democracy and the longest surviving Western monarchy, both were founded on the idea that “human persons” possess inalienable natural rights granted by God. This had been a revolutionary concept when the Catholic Church embraced it 2,000 years ago, and was equally revolutionary when the Declaration of Independence stated it 1,800 years later.

The Church is one of the leading advocates and providers for the poor in the world, fights against the scourge of human trafficking, and advances the cause of human dignity and rights more than any other organization in the world. The Holy See also plays a significant role in pursuing diplomatic solutions to international predicaments. In 2007, for example, the Holy See helped secure the release of several British sailors who had been picked up by the Iranian navy. Its long-standing bilateral relations with Iran and the lack of such relations by the British and other western governments created an opportunity for successful intervention.

And more recently, the Holy See issued its diplomatic note concerning the civil war in Syria, calling for a “concept of citizenship” in which everyone is a citizen with equal dignity. It is urging the commissions which are working on a possible future constitution and laws to ensure that Christians and representatives of all other minorities be involved. This immediately helped place a spotlight on the plight of Christians and the ongoing exodus of all non-Muslims from most Middle East countries for the last 30 years. The power and influence of the Holy See is often underestimated. A benevolent monarchy tucked into a corner of a modern democracy, the Holy See is at once a universally recognized sovereign representing more than a billion people (one-seventh of the world’s population) — and the civil government of the smallest nation-state on earth. It has no military and only a negligible economy, but it has greater reach and influence than most nations. It’s not simply the number or variety of people that the Holy See represents that gives it relevance; it’s also the moral influence of the Church, which is still considerable despite secularization and scandals.

The Holy See advocates powerfully for morality in the lives of both Catholics and non-Catholics, and in both individuals and nations. One may disagree with some of the Church’s positions and yet still recognize the value — the real and practical value — of its insistence that “right” should precede “might” in world affairs. At its core, the Catholic Church is a powerful and unique source of non-coercive “soft power” on the world stage — it moves people to do the right thing by appealing to ideals and shared values, rather than to fear and brute force. America’s foreign policy is much more likely to succeed with the support of the Holy See.

His book The Global Vatican elaborates on that, and I was interested in his recently expressed optimism at seeing the president planning a visit with Pope Francis on his travels last week. I asked how he saw that visit, given conflicting reports on what the two leaders talked about in private, but the certainty that they agreed on some mutual goals while differing on certain principles. Ambassador Rooney responded “Well, we are, after all, a people of hope.”

What did they talk about? In advance, big media speculated the two would focus on points of agreement, on economic inequality and immigration, human trafficking and humanitarian relief. But that issue agenda was laden with problems some media ignored, especially in the areas of the administration removing the US bishops’ human trafficking relief aid, and the humanitarian relief provided by the US being tied to ‘reproductive justice.’

I’m always interested in the facts and the truth and the basics, so I wanted to cut through the spin. Fortunately, we have more of an idea of what happened between the pope and the president than we could expect from such a high level, closed door meeting. Top Vatican watcher Sandro Magister wrote this:

In his meeting with Barack Obama a few days ago, Pope Francis was not silent on what divides the American administration from the Church of that country on weighty questions like “the rights to religious freedom, life, and conscientious objection.” And he stressed this in the statement issued after the discussion.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio does not like direct conflict, in public, with the powerful of the world. He lets the local episcopates take action. But he does not conceal his own disagreement, and he is careful to maintain his distance. In the photos of his official meetings he poses with a stern expression, unlike the exaggerated smiles of his counterpart of the moment, in this case the head of the world’s greatest power.

Nor could he do otherwise, given the radically critical judgment that Pope Francis fosters within himself regarding today’s worldly powers.

It is a judgment that he has never made explicit in a complete form. But he has offered many glimpses of it. For example, with his frequent references to the devil as the great adversary of the Christian presence in the world, seeing him at work behind the curtains of the political and economic powers. Or when he lashes out – as in the homily of November 18, 2013 – against the “sole form of thought” that wants to enslave all of humanity to itself, even at the price of “human sacrifices,” complete with “laws that protect them.”

Apparently, these issues came up, diplomatically, in that meeting.

In their first face-to-face meeting, Pope Francis reiterated the Catholic Church’s concerns with President Barack Obama’s policies on abortion, conscience rights, and freedom of religion.

A source familiar with the talks told LifeSiteNews that the Vatican press release on the meeting was “remarkably forthright” in emphasizing the fact that the pope raised these issues with the president.

According to the press release, the pope launched a discussion with the American president about the proper role of church and state, raising “questions of particular relevance for the [Catholic] Church in that country.” These included “the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life, and conscientious objection,” according to the Vatican.

The 52-minute-long meeting marked Obama’s first audience with Pope Francis. The divide between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church has deepened since his meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, with broiling arguments over the president’s promotion of abortion-on-demand, same-sex “marriage,” and the HHS contraceptive/abortifacient mandate.

Just to note, a 52 minute meeting with Pope Francis by a head of state is almost half an hour longer than the usual.

Then it ended with the cordial exchange of gifts.

Pope Francis presented President Obama with a copy of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), which criticizes some public figures who attempt to marginalize the pro-life message by presenting it as “ideological, obscurantist, and conservative.”

“This defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right,” Pope Francis wrote. “It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development.”

The president said he may look at it. “You know, I actually will probably read this when I’m in the Oval Office,” Obama responded, “when I am deeply frustrated, and I am sure it will give me strength and will calm me down.”

A source of hope.

For his part – perhaps signaling a wish for a new springtime with the church – Obama gave Francis a collection of seeds used in the White House garden. The kicker, however, was the chest they came in: custom-made and engraved with the occasion and date, the case was fashioned of wood from the US’ first cathedral, Baltimore’s Basilica of the Assumption, which the Jesuit founder-Bishop John Carroll and Benjamin Latrobe – the future architect of the Capitol – designed as a monument to religious freedom in the American experiment. Against the backdrop of the Obamacare contraceptive mandate which has roiled the Stateside church for going on three years, the significance is rather rich.

With religious freedom being at stake in the two HHS mandate lawsuits before the Supreme Court, one can only hope the president does follow through a read Evangelii Gaudium in the Oval Office or anywhere, and take to hear the message Pope Francis so incisively delivers in that document. The president admires the pope. Maybe he’ll consider his teaching.

But as Ambassador Rooney repeated by the end of an hour’s discussion of ‘The Global Vatican’ and the importance of US-Vatican relations, “we remain a people of hope.”