Pope Francis and President Barack Obama can’t be wedged into conventional boxes.
Blasting them as “liberals” doesn’t square with their track records. As with many black/white judgments, this one misses the mark. It’s based on false alternatives. The pope and president transcend neat categories. They simultaneously move from right to left and back again. They practice biblical faith that “visits orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27).
Pope Francis hasn’t budged on Roman Catholic ethics which condemn same-sex relationships, abortion and using contraceptives. He objects to them, however, without having a rigid “attitude.” He doesn’t sound like a know-it-all.
The pope told a Jesuit journalist: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.”
This describes how a parent reacts to her naughty children. She doesn’t excuse her off-springs’ bad conduct but corrects it. That’s how Pope Francis handles cultural issues that spark heated debate. He greets them with a smile, displays self-effacing humor and uses warm hugs instead of jeremiads.
Critics err who force him into the neat category of how a “liberal” pope thinks, expresses himself and acts. They pit him against “conservative” predecessors; retired Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II, who recently achieved sainthood.
Because Pope Francis believes income inequality is wrong and Christians’ prime work is to help the poor doesn’t mean he’s a religious liberal, like Barack Obama. Both defy being shoved into simplistic categories. They slide along a spectrum of convictions that range from right to left and back again.
President Obama is aware of distinctive cultural shifts mixed with historic demographic changes. No longer does the political realignment Ronald Reagan engineered 30 years ago dominate America. Older Caucasian men don’t possess a hammerlock on politics, as they formerly did. Gays no longer are part of the silent minority. Evangelical Christians carry diminished moral relevance among younger citizens.
President Obama observes, “The truth is that we have steadily become a more diverse and tolerant country that embraces people’s differences and respects people who are not like us. That’s a profoundly good thing. That’s one of the strengths of America.”
Doesn’t this presidential mentality reverberate in the Vatican’s halls since Pope Francis arrived?
In late June 2006, before entering the White House, Barack Obama — then junior senator from Illinois — addressed a meeting of Call to Renewal. He rejected using faith as a cudgel to suppress behavior. Obama regards it as a tolerant guide, fostering cooperation amid differing opinion. “People are tired of seeing faith as a tool of attack,” he declared. “They don’t want faith used to belittle or to divide. They’re tired of hearing folks delivering more screed than sermon.”
President Obama can’t be pinned down to a narrow political agenda. “From the evidence of Obama’s speech,” concurred David Heim, editor of The Christian Century magazine, “his own preferred mode of moral appeal is triangulation — fusing so-called conservative values of individual responsibility with progressive social policies.
“For example, he endorsed government regulations to keep guns of the hands of the inner-city thug but acknowledged that something more than government regulations is needed to heal the ‘hole in that young man’s heart.’ He endorsed sex education to prevent unwanted pregnancies but affirmed that parental guidance is needed to teach adolescence sexual responsibility” (The Christian Century, “Voters and Values,” Aug. 8, 2006).
Working as a community organizer with Roman Catholic charities in Chicago, who does President Obama sound like? Pope Francis.
Look at the president’s two domestic initiatives: the health-care overhaul and immigration reform. Notice how Obama moves between values coveted by the political left and right.
He mixes personal initiative with government regulation, spurring economic growth with fair distribution of the wealth it brings.
Gerald R. Seib, The Wall Street Journal commentator, describes how the president adroitly moves across political boundaries. “Obamacare, he (the president) argued, will aid businesses and workers by helping them find, jointly or separately, health insurance at competitive rates. And an immigration overhaul will bring workers out of the shadows and into the mainstream workforce, where their labors and taxes can help pay retirement costs that threaten to bust the long-term federal budget — and ruin retirement for middle-class couples” (“Obama’s speeches: Progressive, populist,” July 26).
Flexible parents effectively deal with their children. They aren’t boxed in by judgmental rhetoric or bogged-down by routine. The pope and our president share these traits, too.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.