The Catholic Thing
Of Popes, Presidents, and Pundits Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 31 March 2014

Towards the end of the Cold War, I helped organize in Washington the only meeting between Edward Teller, the father of the American hydrogen bomb, and Andrei Sakharov, who built the H-bomb for the Russians. By then, Sakharov had grasped Communism’s horrors and had become a prominent dissident. The two were giants of the age and very much wanted, finally, to meet.

But Sakharov was insistent: only a few people in the room and the interpreter had to be his son-in-law. The Union of Concerned Scientists, to whom he was to speak in New York, tried to stop it. Teller was a pariah among the nuclear-freeze crowd. But it all came together.

What surprised me, when they actually sat down, was how little time these two men – who must have wondered about each other over decades based on news reports and scientific papers – spent on personal matters. After the briefest of greetings, they turned to substance.

Despite his anti-Soviet activism, Sakharov urged Teller to stop Reagan’s “Star Wars,” the nuclear-missile shield (which we’re still developing). Teller countered that Sakharov had long been out of the loop and the Soviets were working at similar projects. Visibly stunned, Sakharov wanted more information. They discussed some technical questions, then descended to the Washington Hilton ballroom where 1000 people were waiting for their public remarks.

There were silly speculations in the news about that meeting; only seven human beings knew what was actually said. Both men were the same in private as they were in public: Sakharov walked a fine line, supporting the Soviets and “peace” groups, which included some churches and, he knew, were often Soviet fronts, on this one subject. Teller was, as ever, the cold warrior.

           Edward Teller and Andrei Sakharov (with Robert Royal behind and to the right)

I think back to that encounter when the press plays up some meeting between two prominent people, like last week’s between President Obama and Pope Francis – you remember that don’t you, or has the news cycle already replaced it in memory?

If you had asked me ahead of time what would happen when the president visited the pope, I’d have guessed not that much. Both men are too genial in person, though we know that Francis can swiftly shift conversations into unexpected gears.

Some news organizations did ask, and other duties Thursday – providentially – kept me from opining on air about something of which we remain essentially ignorant. But what I’ve seen others saying is the usual gamut of Rohrschach-like reactions.

The New York Times wondered beforehand whether Obama would go over the heads of the American bishops and get a “reset” of relations with the Church – on the grounds that both Francis and Obama believe in social justice. (That, just coincidentally I’m sure, happened to be something the White House was pushing as well.) In large contrast, the U.K.’s Cristina Odone, who says she cried with joy when Obama was first elected, poor thing, described Obama’s visit as a desperate effort, in the face of domestic and foreign policy fiascoes, for Obama to get a boost from Francis’s moral prestige. At least one conservative outlet tried to claim the meeting was all about religious liberty.

But since we don’t know what the pope and Obama discussed and what was later discussed by the president with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin, I remain agnostic about such things unless hard evidence from someone actually in that room is forthcoming.

         The president and the pope

If, as I suspect, the president and the pope smiled their way through almost an hour together – mostly talking about poverty and inequality – that’s not entirely a bad thing. This pope is shrewd and knows he’s not going to change Obama in an hour. (Though I have it from someone reliable – and present before Obama’s meeting with Pope Benedict in 2009 – that our “cool” president was visibly jumpy.) 

But maybe it’s also an opportunity missed if, accepting the president’s account, the pope didn’t at least raise the harder questions. Everyone agrees that the poor need to be helped and some kinds of inequality are unjust. The difficulty lies in how to deal with such things. Some favor markets as the most efficient and proven channels, despite occasional market failures; others believe in a strong role for the state, despite modern state tyrannies and fiascoes. I’m mostly behind markets myself, but at any given juncture unusual circumstances can make you, if you’re not an ideologue, lean away a bit from your usual opinions.

The missed occasion, if it was missed, was to lay out a bigger picture, one that even the late Cardinal Bernardin, whom Obama’s people try to enlist as a patron saint from Chicago, understood quite clearly. When Bernardin introduced the “seamless garment” into American Catholic discourse, many of us thought it risked becoming a way to tear the garment of Catholic social teaching, though that was not, I think, Bernardin’s intention. And in fact, the Pelosis and Bidens and Sebeliuses have gotten a pass. They can vote to kill all the babies in the womb that they want – so long as they are “good” on the poor, immigration, healthcare.

Right after Paul VI published Humanae Vitae, which is remembered as an encyclical about “contraception” but is really much more, Elizabeth Anscombe, the Oxford philosopher and translator of Wittgenstein, wrote that the pope’s teaching: “is indeed against the grain of the world, against the current of our time. But that, after all, is what the Church as teacher is for. The truths that are acceptable to a time – as, that we owe it as a debt of justice to provide out of our superfluity for the destitute and the starving – these will be proclaimed not only by the Church: the Church teaches also those truths that are hateful to the spirit of an age.”

Only a fly on the wall – or maybe the NSA – knows if what is hateful to the spirit of this age was discussed face-to-face between two world leaders last week. But I hope so.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, March 31, 2014
Dr Royal,you nailed it!
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, March 31, 2014
I would imagine that the Holy Father would have asked Obama to explain to him what exactly what was involved in the procedure Obama advocated for as State Senator from Illinois called "partial birth abortion."

Since we are told that the meeting lasted about 53 minutes, my guess is that 15 minutes was given over to Obama's explanation of exactly how the procedure for killing full term babies is done and the rest of the time was spent trying to revive the Pope after he had fainted and fell to the floor.

But, then again, whom am I to judge what exactly took place.
written by grump, March 31, 2014
"Only a fly on the wall – or maybe the NSA – knows if what is hateful to the spirit of this age was discussed face-to-face between two world leaders last week." Actually, the translator would know exactly what was said. So if I were still a practicing journalist I'd seek him out for some beer and pretzels.

For Obama, whose approval ratings are dismal and getting worse, it was clearly a photo op and a lame attempt at gaining some stature. Francis hovers around 75% so the answer to "cui bono?" is obvious.

Obama's post-meeting remark that the Pope seems "uncomfortable" with the trappings of his office stands in stark contrast to Obama's vaunted view of himself as one deserving of the many perks of the presidency.

I wonder if Francis asked Obama how he squared his professed Christianity with his positions on homosexual marriage, birth control, abortion and repeated lying to the American people.

written by Nancy D., March 31, 2014
Regarding whether or not pope Francis asked president Obama how he squared his professed Christianity on same-sex sexual acts, birth control, abortion, and lying, one can presume from president Obama's statement that the pope did not. The question is, why not? Why meet with the president and not discuss the serious issues of the Day in light of our Catholic Faith?
written by schm0e, March 31, 2014
Francis is shrewd, it does seem. Of course, one needn't be too shrewd to be more shrewd than Obama (disclaimer: I readily admit that Obama is probably shrewder than I; I mean he'd have to be...wouldn't he?)

My guess is that Francis charitably deconstructed O so deftly that O is still wondering what happened, and that Francis is being charitably reticent while Obama is being politically so.

This would be consistent with a Pope who seems to be a master of the time-release effect.

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