Presidents, Popes, and Power
by Stephen Foster, September 8, 2015: Personally, I am uncomfortable with President Obama’s willingness to leverage the pope’s influence, popularity, and opinions to advance his own political and ideological agenda, even when the President’s agenda coincides or intersects with my own political and ideological beliefs—which is frequently.
On more than one occasion in his presidency, the President has demonstrated a willingness (or need) to drop the pope’s name, so to speak, and associate the pope with specific policy positions that he has/favors. Any liberal president is liable to do this, just as conservative presidents have done so in the past with popes who have not been, or haven’t appeared, as liberal, or who may have been conservatives.
Of course the current pope is just that – the current pope, meaning that he would at some point be succeeded by another pope; and the current President of the United States (POTUS) must also be succeeded by someone just 17 months from now. So then, these are temporary personalities who hold permanent positions of power and influence.
However, the pope can occupy his position for life if he wants to; whereas the President—any POTUS—can only serve two four-year terms, and those only at the constitutional pleasure of the American electorate, which is the key to the dynamic. The President—any President—needs the pope more than the pope needs the President.
Popes are assumed to be infallible by much of their constituency, and they issue “constitutions,” encyclicals, and decrees on their own. At best, Presidents of the United States are assumed to be incompetent by the segment of the electorate that didn’t vote for them, which can number 40-45% even in “landslide” elections. Instead of decrees, presidents can issue executive orders within the purview of the constitutional powers of the executive branch of the federal government, and they can veto or reject legislation passed by both houses of Congress—although their vetoes can be overridden (by both houses of Congress). Instead of pronouncements, presidents may propose and promote legislation that only Congress can write and pass, which he/she may then sign, which would then become law—subject to challenge in, and review by, the courts. As commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces, a president can marshal those forces into action at his or her discretion, subject to the oversight of Congress, which appropriates all funding and which solely can declare an official war.
It doesn’t matter who the pope is; papal actions and documents aren’t subject to be overridden, and neither is there any oversight of them other than public opinion, in which case they get the benefit of the doubt from their constituency—and much of the rest of the world.
So the spheres of influence and cache of popularity and goodwill of any pope versus any president are quite different, with the pope enjoying a clear advantage. As well as anyone, Presidents of the United States and prospective presidents of the United States know this. (If not, they learn.) The current United States president knows this; and with the pope sharing many of his perspectives, the opportunities to advance his agenda using the draft of the pope’s influence and popularity are clear and unmistakable.
Make no mistake about it; this is also the case for those who aspire to the presidency in the near future. So as the pope prepares to come to America in September, it will be interesting to observe those currently in political power—and those who have presidential ambitions.
This pope—as any pope—is uniquely positioned to influence both sides of the political divide in the United States; and both sides of the political divide here are willing to leverage the pope’s—any pope’s—influence and cache to advance their political agendas; which is what makes papal prestige a danger to the principle of separation of church and state, and as such, possibly threatening to liberty of conscience.