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The pope & the prez: What to look for in the Francis-Obama summit

First Published      Last Updated Jan 21 2014 05:24 pm
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Peace in the Middle East

Kerry's talks with Parolin this month focused on peace in the Middle East, and Francis is also likely to spend a lot of time with the president discussing ways to halt the brutal civil war in Syria. Francis has made that a priority, and he will be meeting with Obama two months before Francis makes his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The Vatican and Washington were at odds a year ago when Obama was threatening a military strike against the Syrian regime and Francis rallied international protests against armed intervention. The military threats — or the papal prayer vigil — led Damascus to agree to give up its chemical arms, and now the pontiff and the president are on the same page in pushing for a peace settlement.

An invitation — and an RSVP?

Obama is sure to issue an invitation to Francis to visit the U.S., and specifically the White House. While Francis has been less inclined to be a globe-trotter in the mold of his predecessor, John Paul II (or even Benedict XVI), there's a good chance Francis could visit the U.S. for the September 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

Before he resigned last year, Benedict said he would like to come for that event, and Francis could certainly work in a visit to the nation's capital nearby and maybe to New York; Cardinal Timothy Dolan and the city's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, are already lobbying for a Big Apple papal visit.

Controversy non grata

One topic the two men surely won't discuss will be the State Department's decision to move the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See to new quarters inside the compound of the American Embassy to Italy.

News of the move late last year infuriated a number of Republicans, but the move was made for security reasons, and it actually upgraded the quality of the Vatican embassy while saving $1.4 million annually and putting the ambassador's office a bit closer to the Vatican. Given Francis' disregard for protocol, and his focus on spending money on the poor instead of on pomp, Obama could pledge to give the savings to charity and he'd have an instant fan.

Pope and change?

The pontiff could even give the president some political advice. "I would have made a good pope," Richard Nixon is rumored to have mused. The tale is probably apocryphal, but it underscores how much presidents can get bogged down by the kinds of checks and balances pontiffs don't have to face.

Yet as Obama confronts Republican resistance on Capitol Hill, Francis also faces strong head winds from church conservatives and from the infamously sclerotic papal bureaucracy, the Roman Curia. He's had to use the power of his message — and his considerable popularity — as much as his authority to try to turn around the Vatican.

"Obama would be wise to talk politics with Francis," Notre Dame's Candida Moss wrote in Politico. "He might be able to pick up a few pointers."