President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the situation in Ukraine on March 1, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the situation in Ukraine on March 1, 2014.
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) Photo courtesy of White House Flickr stream

This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) When President Obama and Pope Francis sit down at the Vatican on Thursday (March 27), the meeting may well offer a vision of what could have been for Democrats and the Catholic Church over the last six years: a leader of the state and a leader of the church working on the many issues where they agree while working through the issues where they don’t.

Of course, that’s not exactly how it’s gone for Obama and the U.S. hierarchy, even though Obama and the church both stress economic justice and the priority of the common good, universal health care, robust government support for the needy and comprehensive immigration reform.

The potential for a robust alliance fizzled almost from the start of Obama’s candidacy in 2007, and a relationship that began badly went downhill when he was elected.

Many Catholic bishops were already deeply worried about Obama’s support for abortion rights, and just four months into office many prelates denounced Obama’s honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame.

Not long after, an epic dispute over abortion funding in the health care reform law — the president’s signature domestic achievement — led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to denounce the law even though it advanced a goal they had sought for decades.

Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gather for Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption on Nov. 11, 2013, at the start of their annual fall meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo by Nancy Phelan Wiechec, courtesy Catholic News Service

Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gather for Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption on Nov. 11, 2013, at the start of their annual fall meeting in Baltimore. Photo by Nancy Phelan Wiechec, courtesy Catholic News Service

This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

That split only widened further when the administration used the law to promulgate a mandate that employers provide free birth control coverage in their health plans, a policy that angered the bishops and led to a full-scale campaign by the hierarchy against the White House.

Gay rights (and same-sex marriage in particular) emerged as the next front in this battle, with both sides staking decidedly disparate positions — the bishops opposed, the White House in support — while raising the level of rhetoric over what was at stake.

But Francis’ election a year ago marked a sea change in Rome’s approach as the new pope repeatedly sought to emphasize the church’s dedication to social justice while moderating the church’s profile in the culture wars. It’s a shift that some say could portend a “reset” for relations between the U.S. bishops and the Obama administration.

“Anytime there is a change in leadership, whether in the Holy See or in the United States, it provides an opportunity to assess where one stands and to renew relationships,” said Joshua DuBois, former head of the White House’s faith-based office.

“This is a moment to assess the possibilities for closer collaboration and to find some areas to work together.”

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. RNS photo courtesy Bob Roller, Catholic News Service

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Photo courtesy Bob Roller, Catholic News Service

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the USCCB, said the American bishops “have appreciated the administration’s collaboration on matters of mutual concern,” such as immigration reform and international peace. She added that issues like gay marriage and abortion “remain areas of concern,” and said the bishops “have been encouraged by Pope Francis in their efforts to address these issues.”

Privately, however, some bishops are hoping for more cooperation because the church and the White House share so many pressing priorities.

“There’s fault on both sides,” said a senior U.S. churchman who was cautiously optimistic about a thaw — though he still spoke on condition of anonymity because the president remains controversial among the hierarchy.

Administration officials say they have detected a subtle shift in tone and have seen greater collaboration in some areas, in part because both sides realize that the contraception mandate will be decided in the courts and in part because global issues of peace and religious freedom have become so urgent.

Plus, there’s the so-called “Francis effect.”

“I think they’ve gotten the Francis message, that it can’t just be all bricks that you throw at the administration, that you’ve got to find a way to work together,” especially on global issues, said an administration official who was authorized to speak anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue.

But others aren’t so sure there will be any real shift in the dynamic between the USCCB and the White House, and certainly not because of the Vatican summit between Francis and Obama. For one thing, Obama needs the meeting more than the pope does, politically speaking, and the Vatican may not want to give the president all that he wants.

Pope Francis greets a crowd on his way to a meeting with cardinals at the Vatican on Feb. 21, 2014. RNS photo by David Gibson

Pope Francis greets a crowd on his way to a meeting with cardinals at the Vatican on Feb. 21, 2014. RNS photo by David Gibson

This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“The pope is going to do everything he can to make sure that there is not a millimeter of distance to be found between himself and the U.S. bishops’ conference,” said George Weigel, a conservative commentator and widely read Catholic author who met with Francis for an hour earlier this month.

“How the White House spins the meeting is, obviously, a different matter, as it’s clear to everyone with eyes to see that the White House intent is to use the pope’s popularity to bolster the president’s fading position,” Weigel said. “The challenge for the Vatican will be to make sure that White House spin does not completely dominate coverage of the story.”

Obama-friendly Catholics don’t see it quite that way, and believe that the two leaders will have “a terrific meeting,” as Stephen Schneck, head of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, put it.

But Schneck also said he doesn’t think the meeting will portend change back in Washington, as much as he and some church officials wish it were otherwise.

“My sense is that the bishops’ conference realizes that Obama is a lame duck at this point,” said Schneck, a supporter of the president and an occasional adviser to the administration on Catholic issues. “They’re content to leave it at that and are not interested in expanding the level of engagement or the warmth of the relationship.”

“It will be a gradual process for the breeze from Rome to make its way over here,” he added. “It’s starting. I feel it. But it’s not really a full breeze yet. It will take a while.”



  1. If Pope Francis doesn’t hand over the pedophile priests he should be charged with a crime as the United Nations already practically did.
    The Catholic Church is engaged in a massive coverup of pedophile priests. Evidence is not being turned over to the police.

    Clergy are not above the law.
    This is a charade. And a national disgrace.

    • There is a price tag to your request, Max.

      If Francis initiates a serious, system-wide crackdown on the “pedophile priests”, such a move may well result in a very painful, wide-open, somebody’s-going-to-leave-this-church public discussion, regarding why so many known homosexuals were allowed to remain on duty as Catholic priests and supervisors at all.

      The bishops don’t want that kind of public embarrassment and pain. The cardinals don’t want it. The Vatican don’t want it. Most of all, Pope Francis don’t want it.

      So, you’re out of luck on your request, Max. “Handing them over” is not a bad idea. BUT, there’s no chance of it. After all, you remember what Francis said regarding those homosexual priests: “Who am I to judge?”

      • @Doc,
        If Pope Francis cares about people; AND if he cares about children who have not yet been molested but WILL BE – and are already even now being raped – by these defrocked and unemployed, Vatican-protected priests – he will stop this nonsense immediately.

        Popes do not need to worry about re-election campaigns! It is in his hands!

        I must only conclude that he doesn’t care about people at all – especially these children.

        Therefore the entire Church is sick. It is an inhumane, uncivilized, self-righteous, uncaring monster.

      • Sorry, Doc, we all know those pedophile priests aren’t gay. It’s the actual gay priests who broke the code of silence and started reporting that criminal activity to law enforcement officials.

        Give up that deceitful HATE SPEECH about “gay pedophiles” right now, Doc. Anyone who can get to this web page can see, for example, the complete debunking of that hate speech here:

        Depicting gay men as a threat to children may be the single most potent weapon for stoking public fears about homosexuality — and for winning elections and referenda, as Anita Bryant found out during her successful 1977 campaign to overturn a Dade County, Fla., ordinance barring discrimination against gay people. Discredited psychologist Paul Cameron, the most ubiquitous purveyor of anti-gay junk science, has been a major promoter of this myth. Despite having been debunked repeatedly and very publicly, Cameron’s work is still widely relied upon by anti-gay organizations, although many no longer quote him by name. Others have cited a group called the American College of Pediatricians to claim, as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council did in November 2010, that “the research is overwhelming that homosexuality poses a [molestation] danger to children.”

        THE FACTS
        According to the American Psychological Association, “homosexual men are not more likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual men are.” Gregory Herek, a professor at the University of California, Davis, who is one of the nation’s leading researchers on prejudice against sexual minorities, reviewed a series of studies and found no evidence that gay men molest children at higher rates than heterosexual men.

        Anti-gay activists who make that claim allege that all men who molest male children should be seen as homosexual. But research by A. Nicholas Groth, a pioneer in the field of sexual abuse of children, shows that is not so. Groth found that there are two types of child molesters: fixated and regressive. The fixated child molester — the stereotypical pedophile — cannot be considered homosexual or heterosexual because “he often finds adults of either sex repulsive” and often molests children of both sexes. Regressive child molesters are generally attracted to other adults, but may “regress” to focusing on children when confronted with stressful situations. Groth found that the majority of regressed offenders were heterosexual in their adult relationships.

        The Child Molestation Research and Prevention Institute notes that 90% of child molesters target children in their network of family and friends. Most child molesters, therefore, are not gay people lingering outside schools waiting to snatch children from the playground, as much religious-right rhetoric suggests.

        Some anti-gay ideologues cite the American College of Pediatricians’ opposition to same-sex parenting as if the organization were a legitimate professional body. In fact, the so-called college is a tiny breakaway faction of the similarly named, 60,000-member American Academy of Pediatrics that requires, as a condition of membership, that joiners “hold true to the group’s core beliefs … [including] that the traditional family unit, headed by an opposite-sex couple, poses far fewer risk factors in the adoption and raising of children.” The group’s 2010 publication Facts About Youth was described by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association as non-factual. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, was one of several legitimate researchers who said Facts misrepresented their findings. “It is disturbing to me to see special interest groups distort my scientific observations to make a point against homosexuality,” he wrote. “The information they present is misleading and incorrect.”

        • Actually, CC Man, we DO know (from the John Jay study) that the great majority — like above 80 percent — of those priest-abuse contacts were between same-sex-attracted men, (homosexual men), and young Catholic boys/teens. Brad Minor, (former literarary editor of the National Review), in his analysis of the John Jay study, points out:

          “…Yet the crisis was self-evidently homosexual in its genesis. This we know from the fact that eighty-plus percent of the abuse was same-sex, whereas sexual abuse in the larger culture is overwhelmingly heterosexual.

          “And the John Jay social scientists limited their research and analysis strictly to the abuse of minors, and so don’t present (nor did they seek) data on the extent to which priests were engaged sexually with other adult men (or women for that matter).

          “I became a Catholic at twenty-six. By the time I was twenty-seven, two young priests had come on to me sexually, which I found both repulsive and discouraging. All this played a role in my decision not to become a priest.

          If academics or bishops wish to believe the Church didn’t have a homosexual problem, they have their heads firmly inserted into quicksand. Rome’s commitment to put things right began with the 2005 directive to weed out “gays” from seminary admissions and was re-emphasized by the Holy Father in Light of the World. Cardinal Levada recently wrote a letter outlining new procedures for responding to abuse. The Vatican knows what John Jay won’t admit.”

          You ask me to give up hate speech. I ask you to give up lying.

          • @Doc,

            You care about HONESTY?
            Those studies show why religion is completely wrong-headed and evil.

            It is a biological fact that 10% of all men are homosexual.
            But the number is actually much higher in the priesthood because it is a self-selected group known for protecting gays within its circle.
            It is also known for protecting pedophiles!

            So the church attracts both. That does not mean homosexuals are pedophiles. It means many pedophiles in the church are homosexual. That is a huge difference!

            The Church protects represses homosexuality completely – while it protects pedophiles. What could be a more destructive, corrupt DISHONEST SYSTEM?

      • @Martin,
        You are incorrect.
        Secular school teachers who happen to be pedophiles are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law – there is no ‘coverup’ to protect them, or the evidence against them.

        Protestant ministers have no protectors either. There is no township with hidden files!

        But the Vatican is a city unto itself with no oversight. It already houses Cardinal Bernie Law – the KNOWN Boston Pedophile Kingpin who has a cushy apartment somewhere in Vatican city, completely off limits to the arms of Justice.

  2. For President Obama this meeting is to lure Catholics into a false belief that he is a Christian with like minded goals as Pope Francis. More and more Catholics like myself have come to believe Obama is a Muslim pretending to be a Christian to garner votes. Obama has admitted he has Muslim Brotherhood members working in the White House, High Security Military and now his White House Chaplin is a Muslim. Obama used the Muslim Brotherhood to murder their way into the Presidency of Egypt but only to have them put on trail for murder with 529 sentenced to death yesterday. Egyptian Attorney General filed a Criminal Complaint at he International Criminal Court against Obama for crimes against humanity and aiding and abetting the murder of Christians by the Muslim Brotherhood. Obama has and is using groups linked to terrorist in Syria supplying arms and money that have murdered, raped, burned alive and tortured Christians. They have also kidnapped Nuns, killed Christians who did not convert to Islam and make other Pay a fee to be Christian. Obama has yet to publicly denounce these acts in Syria or Egypt as Pope Francis has done. Obama has removed God from nearly every quarter of military life and directed Homeland Security to consider Christians as terrorists. Obama has increase Abortions and legislation even publicly thanking God for Abortion clinics, which could only be Satan. Any meeting between Pope Francis and Obama is for a photo to convince Catholic Democrats to cast their lot with him in the November House and Senate elections. Obama is using the Pope to further his political goals while continually crushing the life out of Christians at every chance.

  3. barack o’Christ in no way cares for the moral stand that the Catholic Church takes on these issues. I can only hope that the Holy Father does not meet with this shame of a Christian.

  4. Well Pedophile Priest will continue to be shielded by Bishops, Arch Bishops, Cardinals and I hope not the Pope…I just dont understand the issue of all protecting the Un Born but the same Priest and Clergy do nothing to Protect the Born Children. Cutt of funding to the Archdioceses in your weekly collections.Parents get your head out of the sand Priests are Raping your children and then being protected by clergy. Make it a issue I think it has as much weight as abortion in our church>>Protect your young born children when that is resolved we can get on with protesting the UNBORN
    ..Protest,Protest,Protest.. Demonstrate and make it loud and clear.

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