Pope Francis and Barack Obama: The Intertwined Fates of Two Outsiders

WASHINGTON, DC    SEPTEMBER 23: His Holiness Pope Francis is welcomed by President Barack Obama during an arrival ceremony at
WASHINGTON, DC SEPTEMBER 23: His Holiness Pope Francis is welcomed by President Barack Obama during an arrival ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, September 23, 2015. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

 

Ever since popes introduced the "precept" of traveling to the White House "on pilgrimage," at least once in their lifetimes, history books have carried images of the famous couples standing side by side: John Paul II and Reagan. Then, Ratzinger and Bush.

And, starting this week, they will capture the meeting of Bergoglio and Obama: The Argentine pope and the U.S. President, son of an African immigrant, with all the genetic memory and tenaciousness typical of immigrants. They both started as absolute outsiders, one in the 2008 primaries; the other in the 2013 conclave. They both scored surprise wins and represented attempts to bring about radical change and lift their respective "peoples" up out of depression.

They are inventors of two record-breaking "resurrections"; one of the Catholic Church and the other of America, Barack Obama and Jorge Bergoglio now finally find themselves facing one another, on the podium of the South Lawn, in an unusual reversal. While the president, despite being nearly 25 years younger, has now begun his downward trajectory, striving for a turnaround that might brighten his sunset, the elderly pontiff continues his masterly rise, armed with a Jesuit shrewdness that keeps him from making mistakes.

Both men started playing the game in advance, taking up roles as interlocutors. Obama gave a "pauperism" speech, evoking the slums of Chicago and Nairobi, and placing particular emphasis on the merits of Catholic parishes there. Francis played the liberal card, mentioning the prophecy of Martin Luther King, and paying homage to the first African-American president. But to return to our history books, the most convincing players in such roles were undoubtedly Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, both of whom were actors when they were younger, and remained skilled at playing the part of a secret partnership between the Vatican and the CIA as an anti-Soviet instrument that was halfway between fiction and reality, convenience and conviction, star wars and angelic legions.

The spiritual understanding -- a true intellectual love affair -- between Benedict XVI and George Walker Bush was on another, more spontaneous and profound plane. The key moment for the president on April 16, 2008, when he celebrated the Pope's birthday at the White House. This was reciprocated with equal amiability two months later, with a walk through the Vatican Gardens, set against the backdrop of a picturesque Roman "aquarelle."

But contrary to any simplistic, superficial interpretation, the Pope didn't admire Bush the champion of Theoconservatism, who was too rough, at times even too rude to attract a refined mind like Ratzinger's, but rather glimpsed in the president a witness to the Civil Religion, in other words a group of moral, Christian-influenced values that became everyone's heritage, and constitute the steel armor of liberty and democracy in America.

For this reason, it is not unreasonable to say that with Ratzinger, the United States lost the most pro-American of all popes: a modern day Tocqueville. While the French philosopher believed the United States constituted ideal terrain for the cultivation of nascent democracy, two centuries later, the German theologian saw a providential strategic reserve, different from a Europe corroded by acidic relativism. Neither of Peter's successors experienced such an intense attraction: America's mission and the Manifest Destiny, to his mind, receive the imprimatur of the Holy Father.

Last but not least, Barack Hussein Obama and Mario Bergoglio, also allies, but united on an entirely different front.

To synthesize and simplify, we might say that John Paul-Reagan and Ratzinger-Bush fought two wars, respectively political and cultural, against the "foreign" enemies of communism and relativism. Obama and Bergoglio, on the other hand, are waging what is mostly an internal battle, essentially psychological and social, in order to broaden the base of their respective communities -- the Church and the Nation -- and make them more "inclusive" (a key word in both of their speeches), converting mercy from an evangelical concept to a political category.

Alongside Obamacare there is what we might call "Bergogliocare," in an attempt to interpret the parallels in the strategies adopted by these two leaders, each in his own environment, institutional and ecclesiastical.

"Obamacare" and "Bergogliocare" denote a shared attitude of the soul that is expressed in an attempt to expand access to free health care on one hand, and the spiritual medicine of the sacrament on the other, to those segments of society and the Church that have been marginalized. This is because they could not provide adequate economic (in the case of many underprivileged Americans) or moral (in reference to the condition of divorced and remarried Catholics) guarantees. And without imposing on the one or the other financial or penitential burdens that are humanly untenable.

However, the progressive leadership of the Pope and president has run up against the walls erected by a generally conservative episcopate and Congress: a hurdle that symbolizes a government ruling without a majority.

Obama and Francis acted prophetically, following intuition and instinct, but they have underestimated the actual degree of consensus that their proposals encounter within their respective "electorates," stoking enthusiasm abroad, but disorienting their supporter base at home.

Who knows if inside the Oval Office, after the rituals of official speeches, the two men "confessed" and advised one another. After all, for both of them, the mutual appreciation and encouragement that they've publicly exchanged before the cameras has yielded an important, emotional drive when it comes to their respective "parliaments" (Congress and the Synod of Bishops, which will open on October 4 in the Vatican).

Finally and most importantly, both men will once again find their destinies closely intertwined, geographically distant but chronologically close, in November 2016, when ballots for the election of the next U.S. President and the Holy Door of the Jubilee come to a close at almost the same moment. It will be a time of assessing achievements and verifying the success of their mutual programs and reformist prophecies.

This post first appeared on HuffPost Italy and was translated into English.