FILE - In this file photo Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013 Pope Francis has his picture taken inside St. Peter's Basilica with youths from the Italian Diocese of Piacenza and Bobbio who came to Rome for a pilgrimage, at the Vatican.

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Could Vatican pilgrimage make Obama more pope-ular?

  • Article by: GAIL COLLINS
  • New York Times News Service
  • January 23, 2014 - 3:49 PM

President Barack Obama is going to visit the pope! He’s been to the Vatican before, but not with this pope, who is perhaps the only person in the world almost everybody likes.

Except Rush Limbaugh, which sort of makes it even better.

The president’s visit, which is scheduled for March, comes at an interesting intersection in the two men’s careers. Pope Francis can currently do no wrong, and Obama can do no right. Recently, his administration decided to move its Vatican Embassy into a more secure building, and the outcry was so intense that you’d think Obama had ordered a re-creation of the Sack of Rome.

“A slap in the face to the 78 million Catholics in the United States,” one congressman screeched.

“Why would our president close our Embassy to the Vatican?” twittered Jeb Bush. “Hopefully, it is not retribution for Catholic organizations opposing Obamacare.”

As political tweets go, this is a keeper on two counts. First, we can once again marvel at Republican politicians’ ability to insert the Affordable Care Act into everything. (Coming soon: How the individual mandate robbed Oprah Winfrey of an Oscar nomination.)

Second, we can mark the official end of the former governor of Florida’s career as the safe, sane fallback option in 2016.

But about the Vatican Embassy: the State Department has been trying to move it into a compound that includes the U.S. Embassy to Italy. This will save money and improve security. Instantly, certain parties detected a plot.

Two former ambassadors to the Vatican, Ray Flynn (Clinton) and Jim Nicholson (Bush), penned a blistering op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in which they called the move “a colossal mistake” that would squish the Holy See’s separate identity. Diplomatically, they attributed more intense feelings to others. (“... many have seen the move as a deliberate slap at the Catholic Church and the pope; some may even detect veiled anti-Catholicism.”)

Fast-forward to many variations on the headline “Obama Insults Catholics.” The State Department pointed out that the new quarters would be in an entirely different building, with an entirely different entrance than the Italian embassy. And that while the new embassy will not be in the Vatican, neither is the current one. Or that of any other country. The Vatican is only two-tenths of a square mile, and more than half of that is gardens.

“In fact, our new location is a tenth of a mile closer,” Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy said.

“It’s a clear diminishment of the importance of the Holy See post,” Nicholson said.

Cynics might wonder why we have an embassy for the Vatican in the first place. The total population is about 800 people, which is approximately one-eighth the seating capacity of Radio City Music Hall. It has virtually none of the attributes you find in an actual country. It doesn’t even have a cuisine.

But, obviously, nobody is going to disrespect the Vatican while Pope Francis is around. He won the world’s heart by quickly doing a few things that were so obvious, it’s amazing no previous pontiff figured them out. Such as: If you are going to talk about the poor all the time, you should try to avoid gold furniture.

Without changing any of the church’s reactionary rules on contraception, homosexuality or abortion, Francis changed the tone just by saying that Catholics should stop obsessing about sex. I cannot imagine what the nuns who ran my old high school would have thought about that theory. Really, it’s hard to overestimate what an incredible time-saver this is.

And instead of just pleading for greater charity toward the poor, Francis decreed that the world needed to drop the idea that when the rich got richer, everybody eventually benefited. Trickle-down economics amounted to a “crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” This would have been where he lost Rush Limbaugh.

Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, told Cardinal Timothy Dolan that a rich benefactor to a rebuilding project at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York might hesitate to cough up his promised million-dollar donation because of the pope’s attitude. Dolan said he assured Langone that while the pope loves the poor, “he also loves rich people.”

Republican budget guru Rep. Paul Ryan said the pope’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for the capitalist system was due to an unfortunate upbringing. “The guy is from Argentina. They haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina,” he told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Even if Francis was down on capitalism, no capitalists wanted to sound down on Francis. Meanwhile, Obama has spent the past five years dodging calls for new taxes and protecting the insurance industry from health care reform. Stocks have been at an all-time high, and Wall Street hates him.

The moral is: It’s way easier to be pope.

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