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Once shunned, papal meetings with American presidents now the norm

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/22/2015 David Jackson

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WASHINGTON — Few relationships in U.S. political history have changed more over time than that between presidents and popes.

Once avoided, meetings with popes are now obligatory for American presidents, the latest being the Sept. 23 sit-down at the White House between President Obama and Pope Francis.

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“It’s almost de rigueur that the president go to see the pope,” says Gerald Fogarty, professor of religious studies and history at the University of Virginia. It’s a vivid illustration of how the church and the United States have changed over the past two-plus centuries.

Obama is the 11th consecutive president to meet with a pope, going back to Dwight Eisenhower’s meeting with Pope John XXIII on Dec. 6, 1959.

Before then, only one president had ever met with a pope: Woodrow Wilson in early 1919.

For more than a century after George Washington took the first presidential oath of office in 1789, the idea of a president meeting with a pope would have been unthinkable.

In the 19th century, anti-immigrant sentiments focused on Catholics, with popes portrayed as manipulative leaders of a mysterious fringe religion. Anti-Catholicism helped form the basis of the “Know-Nothing” political party that ran candidates during the 1840s and 1850s.

Things changed gradually, as more immigrants entered the country and Catholics formed large blocs of voters.

Popes, meanwhile, were losing the earthly political power they had amassed in centuries past, when they were literally the rulers of kingdoms, and began to be seen more as spiritual leaders.

When Wilson visited Europe in late 1918 to negotiate the treaty that ended the First World War, he included a stop in Rome. An aide suggested it would be improper for Wilson not to sit down with the pontiff while in Rome, so Wilson and Pope Benedict XV held the first presidential-papal meeting on Jan. 4, 1919.

Anti-Catholic feelings persisted, however. Four decades passed before another meeting.

In 1928, anti-papal protests followed Democrat Al Smith, the first Catholic to be nominated for president by a major political party. ("A Vote for Al Smith is a Vote for the Pope,” said one sign on the campaign trail.)

As the world slid back toward war in the 1930s, relations between the United States and the Vatican warmed in face of religious persecution in Europe and elsewhere. After the war, the Catholic Church emerged as an outspoken foe of communism.

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President Eisenhower included Rome on his schedule during a multination tour, meeting with Pope John XXIII on Dec. 6, 1959. A tradition was born.

The next year, John F. Kennedy became the first (and so far only) Catholic to be elected president of the United States. He met with Pope Paul VI on July 2, 1963.

As the relationship between the White House and Vatican has evolved, popes have been increasingly seen as honest brokers in international diplomacy.

Popes have been involved in Middle East negotiations, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80. Under Polish-born John Paul II especially, the church aggressively confronted communism in Poland and elsewhere.

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More recently, Pope Francis supplied space in Vatican City for meetings between members of the Obama administration and the government of Cuba over the normalization of relations.

“The popes began to emerge — in the 1950s especially — as mediators,” Fogarty says.

Ahead of the latest meeting, Obama, who spoke with Francis at the Vatican in 2014, said he wants to discuss their mutual interest in combating climate change. The president has also praised Francis for advocating efforts to fight poverty and income inequality.

While papal meetings are now an expected part of the presidency, the politics for the American leaders can be tricky.

Though Obama is in accord with Francis on climate change and helping the poor, he is aware of the church’s opposition to abortion rights, gay marriage and other social positions backed by the Democratic Party.

On the other hand, Obama’s Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, appreciated Pope John Paul II’s opposition to abortion rights. But John Paul implicitly rebuked Bush over the Iraq War, and the church’s opposition to capital punishment, among other stances, runs contrary to many Republicans’ views.

After his 2014 meeting with Francis, Obama said the Vatican is clear about its positions on a variety of issues.

“I don’t think that His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or a coalition with any political figure on any issue,” Obama said. “His job is a little more elevated. We’re down on the ground dealing with the often profane, and he is dealing with higher powers.”

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