As President Obama descends on Rome for a meeting with Pope Francis, no doubt the masters of the media will make every attempt to show how the two men are brothers-in-arms. We will hear how Pope Francis is a man of the poor and so is Mr Obama. We will be reminded that the Pope who asked “who am I to judge?” is on the same side with the President who is pushing for same sex marriage. We will hear that the President who favors redistribution of the wealth is a brother in the same battle with the Pope who secretly favors liberation theology.
Some commentators will demur at this starry-eyed version of reality and point out that the most pro-abortion President to be elected has little in common with a Pope who has called abortion an abhorrent crime and said every unborn child bears the face of Christ. They will see the contrast between the Pope who has lived with and for the poor his whole life, and a President who has assumed the most imperial and extravagant style of any chief executive in living memory. The cynics will see not stars, but cinders. Here is a failed politician whose reputation is on the slide trying to hitch his wagon to a Pope who is more wildly popular in global terms than he will ever be.
We should really set both extreme views on one side and re-consider basic issues. Beneath the diplomatic murmurs, the exchange of gifts, and the smiling photo calls, a Pope and a President–any Pope and any President–have little in common. A President is a politician, or at best an ideologue. As a politician he must be concerned with re-election and popularity polls. He is in the pocket of the big money boys and their agenda is to get and maintain power in the world.
A President may talk of “hope and change” and mouth political platitudes about the greatness of his people and their longing for freedom, or he may genuinely want to change the world for the better.
Nevertheless, he will have no real connection to a Pope, and to understand why we must be reminded of the real power and purpose of the papacy. The Church of Jesus Christ wields the power on earth to overcome evil, forgive sins, and open the door to heaven. The purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ is to proclaim of the gospel of God, minister forgiveness to individuals and societies, heal the sick, and take active authority over evil. That’s what the Christian religion is about. That’s the Pope’s business. That’s every Pope’s business.
It may seem like a Pope is intent on making the world a better place, and every Pope is concerned with social justice, the preferential option for the poor, the rights of workers, and the elimination of cruelty, crime, war and death in all its horrendous forms. But all this is a consequence of his primary concern–it is not his primary concern. His primary concern is to forgive sins, save souls, and defeat evil. The social concern, compassion for the suffering and passion for the poor, is the result of his primary concern. We have compassion on the poor because we love and serve Jesus Christ. We serve their bodies because we are called to save their souls.
The Pope and the President will probably discuss the issues of power, poverty, peace and prosperity. They will probably agree on some issues, but the divide between them is one that is is very deep even if it is not very wide: the Pope has his eyes fixed on an eternal solution, and if eternal then timeless. A President’s concern, on the other hand, can never be more than temporal, and if temporal than temporary.
Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion–The Fight for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Read his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com