It’s not quite a gift from God but, politically, it may be the next best thing.
President Obama increasingly is finding a key policy ally in the Vatican, with Pope Francis standing virtually shoulder to shoulder with the White House on income inequality and a historic diplomatic reboot with communist Cuba. The pontiff next year also appears poised to offer greater support to the president on climate change initiatives and reportedly wants to be a leading voice at a U.N. global warming summit next year, where the American president will make perhaps his greatest pitch to date for more dramatic action on the environment.
For Mr. Obama and fellow Democrats, aligning with Francis offers clear benefits in the short term, as they are able to highlight agreement on controversial issues with one of the most respected figures on the planet.
But in the long term, analysts say, Democrats may pay something of a political price.
To soothe American Catholics, who may have grown suspicious of the church’s partnership with a liberal White House, the pope in the coming months and years is likely to zero in on fundamental disagreements with the Democratic Party on issues such as abortion and religious liberty, said Joseph Prud’homme, a political science professor and the director of the Institute for the Study of Religion, Politics, and Culture at Washington College.
“I believe Francis will remind the faithful in his position as supreme pastor about what he has consistently said about life and religious liberty. I hope, and I expect, that he will, after these initiatives [on Cuba and climate change], remind the faithful of the unending position of the church with respect to the sanctity of human life, the importance of religious liberty,” Mr. Prud’homme said.
He added that Francis could create a deeper, almost irreparable rift between the church and the Democratic Party and create further headaches for liberal Catholics in electoral politics unless the Democratic Party “changes and recalibrates its center of gravity away from these issues which, from the position of the church, represent grave and serious moral error.”
While abortion and other moral issues represent a philosophical chasm between the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party, the past several years have proved the two can work together.
The White House praised the pope this month for playing a critical role in a landmark deal with Cuba, one in which the U.S. will re-establish formal diplomatic ties and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than five decades.
Francis invited administration officials and representatives of Cuban President Raul Castro’s government to the Vatican for a series of meetings this fall. The first Latin American pope also sent letters to Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro, urging the two leaders to change course and end the isolation of the past 50 years.
“He played a very important role,” Mr. Obama said of the pontiff in an interview with ABC News this month. “The pope doesn’t wield armies. He can’t impose sanctions. But he can speak with great moral authority, and it makes a difference. And it certainly made a difference in this case.”
In a Dec. 17 statement, Francis welcomed the normalization of relations, and the White House circulated his words to members of the media.
The Vatican has long been critical of U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Pope John Paul II — one of the few world leaders to have been received by longtime strongman Fidel Castro in a business suit rather than fatigues — called the embargo an “oppressive, unjust and ethically unacceptable” burden on the poor during a pilgrimage to Cuba.
The pope also has become one of the Democrats’ biggest allies on income inequality, which Mr. Obama has cast as perhaps the biggest challenge facing the U.S. economy today.
Last year, Francis offered a clear rejection of “trickle-down economics,” seemingly embracing Democratic policies of greater redistribution of wealth to struggling Americans.
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” he said. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
High-profile Democrats, such as Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, cited the pope’s words when arguing for more government spending on programs to aid low-income Americans and to shrink the wage gap between the rich and the poor.
“Those of us in America should pay heed” to the pontiff’s words, he said after Francis’ comments on income inequality.
Moving forward, the pope may become one of Mr. Obama’s greatest allies on climate change, described by the president as one of his top priorities in his final two years in office.
Mr. Obama already has struck a historic climate accord with China, begun to impose harsher carbon emissions restrictions on U.S. power plants and taken other steps to curb climate change. He is expected to call for even greater action during a U.N. climate summit in September, and Francis looks ready to do the same.
The Guardian newspaper reported this week that the pope plans to address the gathering and aims to be one of the most prominent voices in attendance. Early next year, Francis also will publish a letter to the world’s bishops urging greater action on climate change, the newspaper reported.
While the pope’s activism on the issue isn’t entirely new — the Catholic Church’s tradition has affirmed for centuries that environmental stewardship of the Creation is a moral duty to the Creator — his appearance at the U.N. conference will again place him alongside Mr. Obama on a controversial issue.
Still, analysts say, it’s unlikely Francis will embrace any of the president’s programs by name and instead will speak in broad terms about the need to care for the environment.
“I don’t anticipate the pope making very specific endorsements,” Mr. Prud’homme said.