Can Pope Francis be an ally for President Obama?

OPINION - As President Obama prepares to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday, can the pontiff’s popularity rub off on America’s commander-in-chief?...

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As President Obama prepares to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday, can the pontiff’s popularity rub off on America’s commander-in-chief? This progressive pope could very well serve as an ally for Obama, albeit an unintentional one.

The two leaders do have some notable differences.  For example, the Pope maintains the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion, and the U.S. Conference of Bishops—a papal lobbying group of sorts—supports religious exemptions for the contraception mandate in Obamacare.  Some private businesses do not want to pay for the birth control of their employees on the basis of religious beliefs, an issue which is under review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Further, the Pope has not altered the Church’s position on marriage, which he sees as being a union between a man and a woman.

And yet, there are similarities.  For one, both men are trailblazers.  President Obama is America’s first black president, while Pope Francis is the first Latin American head of the Catholic Church.  Both have used their oratory and positioned themselves as a breath of fresh air with new approaches to the world’s problems.  Obama was viewed by many as a welcome departure from the blunders of the Bush administration.  Meanwhile, Pope Francis followed hardliner Pope Benedict XVI, the former Hitler Youth member and ex-head of the Inquisition who was often compared to a certain Star Wars villain.  Benedict— who wanted to take the church back hundreds of years, and said the church “purified” indigenous peoples by colonizing them—resigned from the office and has not been heard from nor thought about since.

Pope Francis has discussed placing women in positions of authority in the Vatican hierarchy, which would represent a major shift in church policy.  And the pontiff, while objecting to gay marriage, has signaled an opening for support of civil unions.

Obama has been a popular president, and the Pope is regarded as the Obama of the Catholic Church, with the potential to preside over a resurgent church long rocked by child abuse scandals and plagued with declining enrollment.  Presently, Pope Francis enjoys higher popularity than the president, with an 85 percent approval rating among American Catholics and 63 percent among all Americans, as opposed to the president’s 47 percent approval rating.

So, maybe Pope Francis could help President Obama?  The one area where the two leaders seem to coincide the most is in the area of social justice and economic inequality.  As The Atlantic has noted, Obama’s salary as a community organizer was paid for by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.  In addition, Obama has fought for minimum wage increases and has warned of the dangers of rising economic inequality and a lack of upward mobility.  The Pope has spoken out as an advocate for the poor and migrants, and against poverty, trickle-down economics and the excesses of capitalism, calling unfettered capitalism “tyranny” and urging the rich to share the wealth.

“Poverty in the world is a scandal,” Francis said. “In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry. We all have to think if we can become a little poorer, all of us have to do this. How can I become a little poorer in order to be more like Jesus, who was the poor Teacher?”

Further, the Pope could influence the president in areas of criminal justice.  Pope Francis opposes the death penalty and seeks its abolition, and perhaps he could provide cover to Obama on the issue, perhaps even influence the president to call for a moratorium on the federal death penalty.  And yet, given the Pope’s stance against drug legalization in Latin America, do not expect any support for the U.S. decriminalization of drugs such as marijuana.

Yet, at the same time, America’s incarceration problem is out of hand, with the U.S. as the world’s largest jailer, and the Pope could provide some lessons in showing compassion for prisoners.  After all, this was the pope who washed the feet of a dozen detainees in a juvenile detention facility and invited nineteen prison inmates into his home.

In the process, Pope Francis is providing hope to millions.  Obama ran on hope, and maybe now the Pope can provide him some of that.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove