At 10:30 a.m. Thursday, two of the most powerful leaders in the world—the head of the global Roman Catholic Church and the president of the United States—shared whispers and laughter on their way into the papal library, where they sat across a simple table to meet. The two men spoke for 52 minutes—much longer than many observers expected—and at the end grasped hands in a warm embrace.
By all accounts, the meeting was very positive. I’ve communicated with administration officials traveling with the president, and Obama himself said after the meeting that, “We actually didn’t talk a lot about social schisms… that was not really a topic of conversation.”
The men exchanged gifts. For Pope Francis, President Obama offered seeds planted in the White House garden, presented in a handcrafted chest made of reclaimed wood from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, one of our country’s oldest Catholic churches. The cornerstone of this Basilica was laid by John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the United States.
For President Obama, Pope Francis presented a copy of his historic 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, which made bold declarations about income inequality around the world, along with a medal of St. Peter’s Square, and a cast in bronze bearing the words: “Solidarity and Peace.”
The words of the cast—solidarity and peace—could hardly have more meaning. For the last several years, dating to the 2004 election and the Catholic opposition to then-presidential candidate and current Secretary of State John Kerry, conservative Catholics and some Democrats have been in a perpetual state of conflict. Partisans on the left sought to marginalize the role of religion in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, in American public life and policymaking, while some on the right, including a handful of vocal, conservative Catholic bishops, forsook the search for common ground in favor of all-out war. And war we’ve seen, with accusations, lawsuits, and partian campaigns proliferating on both sides.
This was a mutation of a relationship that should, in theory, be unbreakably strong. In the Catholic Church, we have an institution that feeds millions of hungry in our country, cares for thousands of refugees, and, ever since Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Sisters of Charity started staffing the Baltimore Infirmary in 1828, has healed countless sick across the nation. In the United States government you have an institution that has provided critical support for these social service efforts, and a president, in Obama, who knows the Catholic Church through and through, and counts a former Catholic archbishop of Chicago as one of his prime inspirations for public service.
For years now, political campaigns, interlocutors, and outside interest groups have gotten in the way, and reshaped this critical relationship around their partisan aims. But today, Francis and Obama appear to have said, enough is enough.
“His Holiness and the Vatican have been clear about a range of issues,” Obama said after the meeting. “Some of them I differ with; most I ardently agree with.” The headline of L'Osservatore Romano put it even more plainly: “Common Commitment.” Based on the readouts of the meeting, this appears to mean a common commitment to ending human trafficking, to compassionate immigration reform, to addressing the inequities in our global financial system that leave the rich ever richer, and the middle class and poor struggling to get by.
Certainly there will be differences, and the Vatican will have to be sensitive to not overstate its collaboration with the president for fear of offending those few bishops still locked in war. The administration, likewise, will have to ignore strident voices on its left and make good on promises to continue unpacking the thorny issue of religious liberty in coalition with the Catholic Church and others. But Pope Francis and President Obama showed today that this type of dialogue can be accomplished—not through press releases and blog posts, but across simple tables, with quiet laughter, and good will.
I do not know for sure, but imagine it is no coincidence that President Obama’s gift referred to the cornerstone of the National Shrine. The Catholic Church in our country has been a cornerstone of healing, reconciliation, and human dignity throughout much of its history. Perhaps the President desires to return to the place where that precious legacy is what people think of first when they hear the words “U.S. Catholic Church,” while Pope Francis desires to return to an era, in the words of his own gift, of “Solidarity and Peace.”