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. (What I remember from the event was walking backstage and seeing a handwritten sign on a door, “Restroom for Pope and President Only.” Certainly the world’s most exclusive washroom.)
In the current round of coverage, we have been treated to comparisons between the approval ratings of President 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. In the run-up to the meeting, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) challenged Obama to “explain to the pope” his views on the Hobby Lobby case — while holding a libertarian political philosophy at odds with Catholic social thought on most points.
The whole enterprise of handicapping the papal primary is absurd. Catholic teaching stands in judgment of both ideological sides in U.S. politics, as one would expect of a faith that combines moral traditionalism with a belief in social justice. And, though it is sometimes hard for Americans to comprehend, the church is working on projects and problems — such as 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. In a recent session at the Faith Angle Forum, papal experts John Allen Jr., associate editor at the Boston Globe, and Paul Vallely, author of “Pope Francis: Untying the Knots,” described Francis’s first year as one of the more consequential in recent church history.
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’s “most important accomplishment so far,” said Allen, 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’s revolution. “His path to reform is not changing the catechism,” said Allen. Instead, it is “creating a zone for the most merciful application of pastoral teaching.”
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 XVI.
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.
MICHAEL GERSON is a columnist for The Washington Post and a former senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations. He was President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 to 2006 and was a Bush Administration senior advisor.