The President of the United States invoked the pope during his annual speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. It was not the first time, and it won't be the last. As a political matter, it makes sense. Pope Francis has become a pop-culture icon. But treating the pope like a celebrity misses the richness of the source of his joy and the implications of the proposal he embodies.
Much of what Pope Francis is most cited for -- particularly by politicians -- is his love for the poor. He urges us to go out to the periphery, to the very edge, and serve all who might otherwise be forgotten in a society that has become indifferent, a transactional, throwaway culture all too casual about the value of human life.
In his recent message celebrating the season of Lent, Pope Francis points to the redemptive generosity of God in "taking flesh and bearing our weaknesses and sins as an expression of God's infinite mercy to us." He writes: "What gives us true freedom, true salvation and true happiness is the compassion, tenderness and solidarity of his love." He continues: "Christ's poverty is the greatest treasure of all: Jesus' wealth is that of his boundless confidence in God the Father, his constant trust, his desire always and only to do the Father's will and give glory to him. Jesus is rich in the same way as a child who feels loved and who loves its parents, without doubting their love and tenderness for an instant."
That, as you may expect, is a revolutionary challenge missed by most media coverage.
Last year, Pope Francis and the pope emeritus, Benedict, appeared together -- their one public event. They consecrated the Holy See to St. Michael the archangel. The symbolism and the spiritual reality behind it were unmistakable. "Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the Devil" is one of the petitions of the traditional prayer asking for St. Michael's intercession.
Pope Francis is leading a revolutionary renewal at a time when our sense of purpose, belonging and direction are too often muddled or opaque, and he's doing so at a time when we lack the common vocabulary and experience to understand much of our religious and cultural imagery and history.
And yet President Obama, having forced religious organizations to seek relief from the Supreme Court for his coercive health care mandates, adds to the problem by proclaiming a Gospel According to Secularism, where the only acceptable faith is superficial, sentimental and adapted to ideology and political campaigns. Real religious freedom leaves room for a radical exercise of liberty, where faith doesn't have to be compartmentalized but can be the core of one's identity, infusing one's life and vocation.
"There is only one real kind of poverty," the pope wrote in his recent Lenten message, "not living as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ." Doing so is a radical lifestyle choice that requires an integrated, wholesale commitment. Nuns who run homes for the elderly and poor should simply not have to choose between following their consciences or paying fines because the White House follows a different agenda, one born of a radical ideology hostile to their deepest convictions.
During the same week that the president and the pope will meet for the first time, the Supreme Court will hear its first Obamacare-related case involving the Department of Health and Human Services, the Green family that runs the Hobby Lobby arts and crafts chain and the Mennonite Hahn family that runs Conestoga Wood, a lumber company in Pennsylvania. The president wants you to look away from what's happening here at home and feel good about his lip service to protecting innocent human life and religious freedom.
But we're paying more attention than that. Aren't we?(Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online, director of Catholic Voices USA and a consultant with the Magnificat Foundation. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)