Michael W. Higgins is vice-president of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He blogs at pontifex minimus.
When Pope Francis arrives at the White House on Wednesday to meet the President of the United States, it will be more than a protocol requirement, a diplomatic necessity; it will be a meeting of soulmates.
Popes and presidents seldom enjoy a level of intimacy. They operate in different conceptual orbits. But there have been instances where a relationship between a Roman pontiff and the chief executive has been especially close and productive.
The Ronald Reagan and John Paul II alliance against communism is a case in point. They not only worked together – with, of course, the steely Margaret Thatcher – to collapse Soviet hegemony, they actually liked each other. They were both actors, enjoyed bestriding the universal stage, and were affable with their supporters and implacable with their critics. The Barack Obama and Francis relationship is deeper still.
Their elections were unprecedented: Mr. Obama is the first African-American president and Jorge Bergoglio is the first Latin American pope. Neither is intimidated by intransigent opposition. Mr. Obama regularly wars with a hostile and stubborn Congress, with both the House of Representatives and the Senate currently under Republican control. Mr. Bergoglio encounters passive resistance among several in his Curia, as well as in the episcopate at large, who find his style and reformist zeal unnerving.
And they are both capable of bold initiatives, sometimes even jointly. For instance, the welcome if controversial rapprochement between Havana and Washington owed its success, in no small measure, as Mr. Obama made publicly clear, to the diplomatic interventions of Mr. Bergoglio. Similarly, the many if aborted undertakings by the President to find a political solution to the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian issue finds a corresponding pontifical effort in the invitation to the Presidents of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to travel to Rome for prayer and dialogue, and with the Vatican's subsequent recognition of the State of Palestine.
Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Bergoglio have a taste for the daring gesture, find themselves drawn by temperament and conviction to the socio-political "peripheries," as Francis calls them, and have firsthand experience of working with the suffering and disenfranchised poor – Mr. Obama in inner Chicago and Mr. Bergoglio in the poorest areas of Buenos Aires.
Their shared passion for righting the environmental damage inflicted by human behaviour was highlighted by Mr. Obama's endorsement of the Pope's encyclical, Laudato Sí. Although the encyclical was greeted enthusiastically by scientists, activists and a public craving an urgent moral leadership that transcends political squabbling and pressing market imperatives, global-warming skeptics in the Republican Party and in the College of Cardinals were quick to point out that the Pope is infallible only in circumscribed matters of doctrine and morals.
But perhaps the most striking confluence of idea and strategy can be found in their respective rejection of exceptionalism. Mr. Obama has been persistently criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike for not emphasizing America's unique, exceptional destiny, its singular status among nations. He has avoided any kind of messianism, in great part because he knows it will sound hollow, that in his heart he doesn't believe in it. Francis, in turn, sees in the "sin of clericalism" a form of exceptionalism that has chiselled away at the core of Catholic credibility and compromised its ministry of openness to the world. This is a significant departure from his immediate predecessors – Benedict XVI and John Paul II – whose high sacerdotalism has created a backlash in the inner life of the Catholic Church.
It is sweetly ironic that a Protestant President has more in common with the Chief Shepherd of the Catholic Church than many of the Pope's U.S. flock, and that when the 266th successor of Peter pays a call to the White House and Congress and will be surrounded by many prominent Catholics in their number – John Boehner, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi and Chief Justice John Roberts among them – the one he shares most in common with will be the 44th President of the United States.