WASHINGTON – When a White House speechwriter turned in a draft of a major speech on economic policy this month, President Obama sent it back with an unusual instruction: Add a reference to the pope.The final version of the speech quoted directly from Pope Francis’ recent letter to the faithful: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” he said.
The citation marked a notable development in Obama’s complex and sometimes confrontational relationship with the Roman Catholic Church: After several years of high-profile clashes with U.S. bishops, Obama is seizing the chance to highlight common ground with the bishop of Rome.
Quoting the pope isn’t likely to yield direct electoral dividends for Obama’s party — the once-vaunted “Catholic vote” largely disappeared long ago. But in a string of effusive praise, the president has made clear he sees the pope as a like-minded thinker and potentially useful ally in a crucial battle of ideas, particularly on the importance of shrinking the gulf between rich and poor, a subject Obama has pushed repeatedly but with limited success.
White House officials described the president’s praise of the pope as merely a happy coincidence with no political motives. Obama, who has never spoken to Francis, simply found the pontiff’s recent statements impressive, they said.
“It’s something that is very much on the president’s mind,” said Cecilia Muñoz, chief domestic policy advisor to the president. “And, happily for us, it’s something that’s also on the pope’s mind.