When a pope meets a president — and the Vicar of Christ gets pulled into political coverage — trivialization ensues. As a reporter, I covered the St. Louis meeting between Pope John Paul II and President Bill Clinton in January 1999, not long after Clinton admitted to “inappropriate, intimate contact” with Monica Lewinsky. There was a frenzy of speculation that, well, what? That the pope would force Clinton to kneel in penance for three days in the snow, like Henry IV? That if they touched hands, it would cause spontaneous spiritual combustion?
The media acted as though a priest had never met an adulterer before, and as though two seasoned world leaders didn’t know how to act in public.
In the current round of coverage, we have been treated to comparisons between the approval ratings of President Barack Obama and Pope Francis, and analysis about similarities between the Democratic and the Vatican platforms. Obama supporters emphasize the remarkable overlap of agendas — on everything except life, marriage and religious liberty.
Catholic teaching stands in judgment of both ideological sides in American politics, as one would expect of a faith that combines moral traditionalism with a belief in social justice. And the church is working on projects and problems — like grace, mercy and original sin — that preceded the American experiment and will outlast it.
That said, popes have been known to employ political skills in divine purposes. And here, Pope Francis seems particularly blessed.
A year ago, the prevailing narrative about the Catholic Church could hardly have been worse — pedophile priests, financial misdeeds, the arrest of the pope’s butler, for goodness’ sake. The Holy Spirit seemed to be on an extended vacation. Pope Francis’ “most important accomplishment so far,” said one journalist, is a “massive change in story” from church in crisis to “humble, people’s pope takes world by storm.” It is a transformation that could be “taught in business school as a rebranding exercise.”
This has been more than public relations, but not devoid of public relations. Francis has a feel for powerful symbols of simplicity, humility and compassion, such as carrying his own suitcase, washing the feet of Muslim prisoners, inviting the homeless to his birthday party, touching the disfigured. In this case, old Coke is pretty old — the example of a wandering preacher who touched lepers and consorted with a variety of sinners and outcasts. As in that ancient example, Francis has combined traditional moral teachings with a scandalous belief that people are ultimately more important than rules.
This is among the least understood aspects of Francis’ revolution.
Francis also seems to understand the urgency of his institutional reform task, pressing forward with reforms of the Vatican bank that were begun under Pope Benedict.
But the possibility of institutional change is made real and vivid because Francis demonstrates the possibility of personal change. During his early rise to influence in Argentina, according to Vallely, Jorge Bergoglio was an “unflinching traditionalist” who was “dynamic, strong and very autocratic.” Following a humiliating demotion and profound interior crisis, the future pope emerged as “an icon of radical humility.” It is not a natural tendency. “Humility is a discipline for him,” says Vallely. “It is calculated, but not fake.”
Francis speaks of mercy with the passion of a man who has received it, and was never the same again. This virtue — showing mercy to others, and accepting God’s pity on our own pitiful hearts — is perhaps the least political of the virtues. Also the most humane.
CORRECTION: In my column last week on Obamacare, I wrote that in Iowa, health care premiums were expected to rise by 100 percent. The source I relied on, which called the prediction recent, was actually describing a a year-old prediction. Rates apparently are now not expected to rise nearly as much.