US Catholic Faith in Real Life

ANALYSIS: Pope and Change: What Pope Francis can learn from President Obama

By David Gibson | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

c. 2013 Religion News Service

(RNS) He came into office riding a wave of good will and bringing a message of hope and change. He was honored by his traditional adversaries and awarded global accolades just months after taking charge amid a crisis of historic scope.

Sound familiar? Maybe the president (Obama) has a few tips for the pope (Francis).

Francis’ trajectory from near anonymity to the heights of power is remarkably similar to Obama’s. But can the pontiff avoid the pitfalls that have dogged the president?

Obama’s current status could certainly be read as a cautionary tale, with his approval ratings mired in the low 40s after remaining persistently strong — though they never approached the stratospheric 92 percent favorability that Francis currently enjoys.

Yet the higher you fly, the farther you fall, and the more painful the landing. “The heady romance between Pope Francis and the world is still in its honeymoon period,” University of Notre Dame’s Candida Moss warned in a Politico essay this week after the pontiff was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.”

True, the magazine’s encomium is not quite the Nobel Peace Prize, which Obama won in 2009 at the same point in his fledgling administration. (The president was also Time’s “Person of the Year” in both 2008 and 2012.) But some of the reactions to it were similar: too much, too soon, too little substance.

“We ooh and ah at the celebrity nature of the Francis papacy in much the same way the world went gaga over Princess Diana,” blogger Rick Moran wrote at the American Thinker. “She, too, was largely about symbolism, but in the end, she accomplished very little of substance. She brought comfort to the afflicted and publicity to some causes, but as far as concrete change, nothing much happened. Francis is in danger of experiencing something similar.”

Indeed, like Obama, Francis could be facing some of the same perils of sky-high expectations that can lead to dashed hopes, in part because the pope is facing some of the same dynamics the president has — namely, a shrinking centrist core and a polarized polity with increasingly vocal fringes.

For example, as Francis has continued to criticize free-market economics, religious dogmatism, and the pomp often associated with Catholic practices, some Catholic conservatives have grown increasingly strident in their opposition.

“Just as President Obama has been a disappointment for America, Pope Francis will prove a disaster for the Catholic Church,” Fox News editor Adam Shaw, a Catholic, wrote earlier this month in a widely circulated blast at the pontiff’s efforts to move beyond the church’s internal ideological battles and engage the world with a positive message.

Moreover, Francis is also facing entrenched interests as he attempts to reform the Roman Curia — a chief reason the cardinals elected him last March — much as Obama faces a persistent foe in the GOP’s Tea Party faction. As one commentator put it on Twitter, Francis “may be Obama, but the Curia is the Republican House. No fundamental change is possible.”

The criticisms and reservations from the Catholic left can also be sharp, and mirror the sense of disappointment and disenchantment heard from Obama’s liberal allies when he failed to change the nation as much as they wanted.

“If (Pope Francis) wants to sustain Catholics’ interest and excitement, the time is fast approaching when he must deliver something tangible,” opined the liberal National Catholic Reporter in an editorial last month on expectations that Francis would begin to implement policies that reflect the sentiments of most Catholics.

To be sure, Francis is the pope, not a president. He is the chief executive and legislator and jurist all in one.

For all that, however, popes are not the autocrats some think they are (or should be) and Francis has to win over his own troops in order to effect the change he envisions. He will also need to appoint leaders who reflect his views — a new White House can make more appointments more quickly than a new pontificate — and he will need public approval to aid him.

But will he have the time to make changes without deflating the hopes of those who are giving the church a second look after decades of scandal and crisis? Obama, at least, seems enamored of Francis, citing the pope in his speeches and saying he has been “hugely impressed with the pope’s pronouncements.”

“He’s also someone who is first and foremost thinking about how to embrace people as opposed to push them away,” Obama told CNBC in October.

Maybe the president was speaking out of envy as much as admiration — and maybe the Vatican should worry about the pope’s fans as much as his critics.