What’s wrong is that neither pope nor president would be smiling if President Obama had stood by the rights of women and the need to protect children. What’s wrong is that Obama does not understand that the president is bound to follow the Constitution, not the teachings of the pope, even if the pope is very popular.
John F. Kennedy—who remains the only Catholic ever elected president—understood that point very well, even though his presidency coincided with the reign of the incredibly popular pontiff remembered today as Good Pope John. In a famous campaign speech, Kennedy pledged his belief in an America “where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace.”
Kennedy kept his campaign promise. On three topics of contemporary concern to the Roman Catholic hierarchy—contraception, aid to parochial schools and religious freedom—Kennedy advocated policies directly opposed to his church’s teachings and completely consistent with the Constitution and Supreme Court precedents. He supported contraceptive access, opposed federal aid to parochial schools and defended a universal right to religious freedom. The last issue was particularly important; during the early 1960s the Catholic Church taught that religious freedom was not a universal right but a right of Catholics only. That president understood that his job was to defend the Constitution no matter how many religious advocates preached that the First Amendment was wrong or that their pro-church policies must be implemented at the expense of contraceptive access.
In contrast, as a presidential candidate Barack Obama defended religious influence in politics. He too kept his promise, allowing the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops and other religious leaders to shape his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act (ACA). On the subject of the contraceptive mandate, for example, which requires employers to include certain reproductive services in their health insurance plans, the Obama administration originally exempted only purely religious employers—churches, synagogues, mosques—from the mandate’s coverage. After an aggressive and inaccurate campaign by the bishops that depicted the president as an opponent of religious liberty, however, Obama voluntarily offered the nation’s religious nonprofits—hospitals, schools, and universities who employ thousands of non-Catholic employees—an exemption from the insurance mandate. That concession to the bishops had dangerous consequences; it landed religious for-profit corporations Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood in the Supreme Court, where they argued that because the religious nonprofits were exempt, they should be too. The bishops agreed with the for-profits and filed an amicus brief on their behalf. The bishops understand that an exemption for the nonprofits will serve their goal of restricting women’s access to contraception and abortion.
Then Obama traveled to Rome to meet with Pope Francis, who is probably the world’s most popular leader. The two parties’ accounts of their conversation differ. The president emphasized the pontiff’s support for the poor, mentioned immigration reform, and downplayed any discussion of “social issues” with the pope. In contrast, the Vatican emphasized that the president’s discussions with the pope focused on “religious freedom, life and conscientious objection,” a clear reference to the ACA. Although Obama reported he and the pope did not discuss the ACA, the president did reassure the Vatican’s Secretary of State that “most religious organizations are entirely exempt” from the mandate and that he would “continue to dialogue” with the bishops to find more middle, compromise ground on women’s rights.
Neither side reported any discussion of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child’s recent scathing criticism of the church’s handling of the sex abuse crisis. The UN not only criticized past handling of abuse by the church, but also accused the church of not doing enough to protect today’s children, which should of serious concern to the president.
In other words, the president focused on topics (poverty and immigration) where he and the pope are in agreement, defended his earlier compromise on women’s rights at the behest of the bishops, promised future compromises with the bishops that could restrict women’s rights, and said nothing about the church’s past and possible future abuse of children.
As President Kennedy well understood, whenever a public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the results can be very bad for constitutional values even if the pope is very popular. The president’s job is to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, not to yield to any particular church’s morality or theology.