President Barack Obama meets with Pope Francis on March 27. It will be the twentieth visit of a President (within the states or at the Vatican) with a Pope since 1919.
These meetings have not always happened. History records at least one misfire. In April 1910, Theodore Roosevelt (an evangelical) sought an audience with Pope Pius X. The Pope agreed to see him, provided Roosevelt would not call on some Methodist missionaries in Rome. Roosevelt had no intention of meeting the missionaries, but he declined to submit to Pius X's conditions and the interview did not take place. Theodore Roosevelt called the entire papal episode, "An elegant row."
In the post WWII era and even during the Cold War, American evangelicals were skeptical of such meetings, and dead set against diplomatic relations with the Holy See, arguing it was a violation of the separation of church and state.
Clyde Taylor, the General Secretary of the National Association of Evangelicals, and head of the association's office in Washington, (disclosure, this writer held that position from 1998 to 2008), would testify before Congress to that effect and refer to Catholics and communists as twin threats to democracy. That was the spirit of the times.
In the 1960 race to the White House, John F. Kennedy was ruled out as a president because conservative Protestants held the view that he would be nothing but a tool of the Pope in Rome. This anti-Catholic bigotry changed in the 1970's with the merger of Evangelicals and Catholics in opposition to abortion, after the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling.
Suddenly Evangelicals and Catholics had some common ground. Today, even more so, though differences exist over topics like contraception and related religious liberty concerns. But of rising importance to both religious communities should be land use degradation, habitat destruction, toxic air (carbon) pollution, species extinction and climate change.
President Obama has made human health a priority by taking action against mercury emissions from coal burning power plants, and more recently now on carbon emissions. This action has the support of a majority all Americans and increasing numbers of "new evangelicals"and Catholics who are committed to a doctrine of creation care, rooted in biblical teaching on the Creation.
He has taken to using Executive Orders to do what Congress will not. Last week President Obama acted unilaterally to protect the Point Arena-Stornetta in California as a national monument, after legislation expanding the monument stalled in Congress. The presidential order will add 1,665 acres of federal land north of the town of Point Arena to the monument, which was established in 2000 to protect marine habitat and the thousands of islands and reefs that hug over a thousand miles of California coastline.
It's an example of the kind of conservation leadership the president should be proud of, do more of, and discuss with the Pope as the kind of interfaith leadership we need to protect God's creation. The temptation is to discuss other pressing issues, such as the crises in the Crimea and Syria, and ignore what over a billion Catholics worldwide might contribute to real progress on what is the most pressing issue facing generations to come -- climate disruption.
Thus, a meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis offers up an excellent opportunity for strengthening the worldwide movement for conservation and calling attention to what is an article of faith both men subscribe to -- that God's creation deserves protection.
"Let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God's plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment," Pope Francis has said. In his last State of the Union message, President Obama said, "Climate change is a fact. And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did."
But both leaders, one a world-wide spiritual leader, the other the political head of the greatest industrial giant in human history, and a prime contributor to green house gas emissions, can do and say a lot more. If you agree, you can tell them so.
A White House "We the People" petition calls upon President Obama to give Pope Francis a photograph of one of our majestic parks or new national monuments as an example of America's proud tradition of conservation leadership, and discuss the sacred obligation of people across faiths to protect God's creation:
"Conservation is a moral responsibility. President Obama should share a
progress report on his climate action plan and efforts to protect America's Great Outdoors, and invite Pope Francis to visit one of America's national parks and monuments."
To quote the President:
When your children's children look you in the eye and ask if you did all you could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, will you be able to say "yes, I did"?
Sign the petition at this link. You'll not only be registering your vote for the future of the Planet, but challenge the status quo on climate change and preservation of public lands, which is not good enough. We can do much better!