ROME – Throughout the day today, and likely well into the night, media outlets will be asking politicians, ex-diplomats and pundits with Catholic credentials to weigh in on the significance of today’s summit between US President Joe Biden and Pope Francis. To paraphrase the Gospel of John, so much commentary will be spewed that, should it all be written down, all the books in the world could not contain it.
Yet the thing is, if you want to understand the true significance of today’s get-together, these are mostly the wrong people to ask. For that, you need to go to somebody such as Blessing Okoedion.
At the age of 26, Okeodion left her native Nigeria for Spain after having been promised a job in a computer store. It turned out to be a con, as there was no job in Spain and the visa she’d been given was a fake. Okoedion’s traffickers told her she owed them $70,000, and, with no other way to pay it off, she was moved on to Naples in Italy and forced onto the streets as a prostitute.
Okeodion ended up at a shelter run by Italian nuns for trafficking victims, and she’s gone on to become a tireless advocate for others. Earlier this month she was given a platform to press her cause at a conference organised by the US Embassy to the Holy See, as part of its long-standing commitment to supporting groups such as Talitha Kum, a network of over 2,000 religious sisters in 92 countries dedicated to fighting modern-day slavery.
The “Casa Ruth” center in Naples that took in Okoedion was founded by Sister Rita Giaretta, a member of the Ursuline sisters, part of the Talitha Kum network. Since 2001 the US has spent more than $340 million on the fight against human trafficking, a good share of it ending up with faith-based groups such as Talitha Kum.
Okoedion’s story illustrates a deep truth about the Biden/Pope encounter, to wit: It’s not really about personalities or politics, but institutions.
What’s happening today isn’t really Joseph Biden calling on Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the given name of Pope Francis. It’s far more about the relationship between the United States and the Holy See.
To use the terminology of Joseph Nye, today marks an encounter between the world’s most important hard and soft powers. The US wields tremendous military and economic leverage, while the Vatican is a unique voice of conscience with a global following of 1.3 billion people and the world’s most sophisticated intelligence network in the form of pastors and missionaries who serve in every corner of the planet.
When these two powers are in alignment, a great deal of good can happen.
Far from the madding crowd, off-camera and out of public view, the US and the Vatican collaborate on a wide range of basically non-ideological and practical matters, from the fight against human trafficking to humanitarian calamities in various parts of the world. These things generally go on quietly, with the US perhaps funneling some money to a Catholic initiative working in some hotspot, or local Catholic leaders turning to US diplomatic personnel to help untangle some political or bureaucratic knot.
Having the support of the White House and the Apostolic Palace, symbolized by these occasional tête-à–têtes between presidents and popes, legitimizes those back-channel exchanges and gives badly needed encouragement to the people on the ground. The statement being made is that this is a structural partnership not dependent on one administration, pontificate or personality.
Such perspective is important because, in truth, there’s unlikely to be much “news” out of whatever goes down today.
This will be the 31st meeting between a President of the United States and Pope, and none of the previous 30 really have changed the world. These summits aren’t Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta, or Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavík – no great geopolitical question hangs in the balance, and the course of history will not be redirected.
In essence, these are photo ops designed as good will gestures on both sides. As a result, drama-addicted reporters and pundits are often forced to seize on minor cracks in the pleasant façade, sometimes interpreting them to death.
Thus when Pope Benedict XVI gifted President Barack Obama a copy of the document Dignitas Personae in 2009, was that a rebuke of Obama’s support for abortion rights, or simply the egghead Benedict being professorial? Similarly, when Pope John Paul II seemed dour and unhappy in 2004 when President George W. Bush presented him with the Medal of Freedom, was that a show of disapproval for the invasion of Iraq a few months earlier, or simply John Paul’s Parkinson’s kicking in?
With today’s encounter between President Joe Biden and Pope Francis, it seems the subtext came front-loaded.
Even before Biden’s motorcade was anywhere near the Apostolic Palace, there was a kerfuffle over the Vatican announcing, then abruptly cancelling, a live feed of the meeting up until the moment when the two men enter the papal library and doors are closed for their private session. Now, it appears, we’ll get a live feed only of Biden’s arrival in the outer courtyard, and then selective images of everything else.
The Vatican’s official explanation is that providing live coverage only of the outdoor arrival is in keeping with its new post-Covid protocols – which leaves unexplained, of course, why the inside feed was first announced and then annulled. Some have taken the blackout to mean the Vatican is trying to downplay the meeting, perhaps out of deference to US bishops who object to Biden’s abortion policies.
In reality, the truth may be more prosaic, i.e., somebody just screwed up. When faced with a choice in Vatican analysis between Machiavellian cunning and simple incompetence, you’ll rarely go wrong choosing the latter.
Whatever the story turns out to be, I doubt it’s the sort of thing that will be on the minds of the Blessing Okoedions and Rita Giarettas of the world today. Instead, they’ll likely just be glad to know the hard and soft powers whose partnership quietly sustains their work still seem to be on good terms.