In analyzing the outcome of Obama’s meeting at the Vatican, everyone in American politics will be trying to find a way to say Pope Francis agrees with them. Pundits everywhere will be talking about what the two world leaders discussed, what it means, and even what jokes they told each other. The obvious chemistry between these two leaders makes some hopeful that Democrats will retain control after the upcoming midterm elections. Conservatives are hoping that Francis will give them a boost with Catholic voters. Everything they need to know, however, is contained in the gift Pope Francis gave the president: Evangelii Gaudium says it all.
In 223 pages, Evangelii Gaudium lays forth the current pontiff’s agenda for his papacy. As the first work the pope published when he took office, many believe that it should be read as the foundation for everything he does. It is also a warning to Catholics who are reading it, a signal that things are about to change.
Pope Francis outlines very clearly his stance on the economy, science, and the role of the Church regarding the two. He was famously criticized as being a Marxist when his comments about trickle-down economics were read. Republicans were not happy. As the primary supporters of trickle-down economic theories in the United States, having the pope disagree with them was a blow. In this, Obama seems to have more in common with the pope than his conservative opponents.
Conservatives have made a shift to be more in accord with the pope. In recent months, talking about the poor and income inequality has become one of their biggest messages. Paul Ryan, the former vice-presidential nominee and a possible White House hopeful for 2016, has made it one of his main talking points. But having it as a talking point does not actually signal any real change in his ideological beliefs. Ryan still supports trickle-down economics and a less regulated free market, which is exactly what Evangelii Gaudium talks against. Nevertheless, making it a primary focus is an acknowledgment of the Pope’s new focus and Ryan, a Roman Catholic himself, was quick to follow suit. He and many others know that Pope Francis said it all as completely as possible in Evangelii Gaudium and they aren’t missing the chance to make him one of their supporters.
Conservatives are adjusting to parts of this message, but Democrats are celebrating what they see as support of their own projects. The pope’s opposition to trickle-down economics was a big win for them. So, too, is Francis’ declaration about the church and science. In his exhortation, he firmly states that the Church does not want to interfere with science and says that the Church is happy to see science advance more and more. Most importantly, he tells believers that they cannot hold a scientific viewpoint that has no evidence in order to promote a certain ideology. Neither faith nor science should do that, he warns.
With this viewpoint that when a scientific fact is reasonable, faith should not contradict it for any reason, Pope Francis is making a huge statement. This affects the contraception and creationist debates most strongly. In the first debate, conservative opponents have denied the truth of all the scientific evidence about contraception, claiming that it causes an abortion even when it does not. As long as they deny that, they can continue to oppose contraception as immoral and against their religious beliefs.
This really makes it seem as though Pope Francis is a rather liberal pope, but there is just as much support for conservatives as there is for liberals. In one part, the pope talks about discrimination towards religion on the part of non-religious persons. He says that religion cannot be privatized or relegated to obscurity in the name of respect for agnostics or a non-believing majority. With the debate about religious freedom gaining attention in America, this will no doubt be a boon to conservatives who fear that religious liberty is being attacked by the Affordable Healthcare Act or evolution in politics.
Knowing what Evangelii Gaudium says sheds a lot of light on the message the Vatican leader was trying to send to President Obama. It is a more neutral argument than the Catholic Church has hitherto had, but it is not a ringing endorsement of the liberal ideology. It is a middle road between the two trying to bring the focus back to what Francis believes the church’s mission is – care of the poor and marginalized, wherever and whoever they may be. No matter what the substance of the two world leaders’ conversation was, no doubt the popular religious leader will remain consistent with his first major message. For Pope Francis, he already said it all in Evangelii Gaudium, and he will not be changing that message either for President Obama or for American conservatives.
Opinion By Lydia Webb