Of Popes, Presidents, and Pundits

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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.