According to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in Newsweek, that would be Barack Obama. She has an article in the online version of the newsmagazine that is headlined, “Why Barack Obama represents American Catholics better than the pope does,” which is a splendid example of why most politicians should avoid writing about religion. According to the Catholic Church, the Pope doesn’t represent American Catholics, he leads them. Townsend makes herself look foolish thus:

In truth, though, Obama’s pragmatic approach to divisive policy (his notion that we should acknowledge the good faith underlying opposing viewpoints) and his social-justice agenda reflect the views of American Catholic laity much more closely than those vocal bishops and pro-life activists. When Obama meets the pope tomorrow, they’ll politely disagree about reproductive freedoms and homosexuality, but Catholics back home won’t care, because they know Obama’s on their side. In fact, Obama’s agenda is closer to their views than even the pope’s.

Townsend plainly thinks that her church is supposed to be a democracy, where if a majority of members want to change moral teachings (and presumably theological dogma, as well), they need only make their wishes known through polling and voilà!, the leadership hops to it. In some Protestant denominations–whose governance in the United States is consciously based on the model of the American government–that’s standard operating procedure. In Catholicism, not so much.

Politics requires the ability to listen to different points of view, to step into others’ shoes.

This is the heart of Townsend’s mistake. In his teaching office, the pope isn’t a politician, he’s what the word says–a teacher. A high school social studies teacher doesn’t ask her students to vote on whether the Union won the Civil War, or whether the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor; she tells them these things happened. What the pope declares when exercising his teaching office is also not a matter of opinion, but is based on the Catholic understanding of God’s revealed truth and its implications. Anyone can disagree with those, but they shouldn’t pretend to be Roman Catholic.

Obama might call it empathy. While the pope preaches love, listening to the other has been a particular stumbling block for the Catholic hierarchy (as it is for many in power). The hierarchy ignores women’s equality and gays’ cry for justice because to heed them would require that it admit error and acknowledge that the self-satisfied edifice constructed around sex and gender has been grievously wrong.

According to Catholic teaching, the primary “other” to whom the pope is supposed to listen is God, not the vox populi. That’s not to say that the beliefs of ordinary Catholics–the sensus fidelium–has no place in Catholic teaching, or no influence on leaders. It is to say that ultimately the teaching of the church isn’t determined by majority opinion, but first and foremost by divine revelation. Given the sources for the teachings to which Townsend most vociferously objects, she is not suggesting simply that the pope is wrong, but that God revelation is wrong. That might be fine if she were in the United Church of Christ or the Episcopal Church, but she’s not. Oh, and determining right and wrong (again, specifically in the Catholic context) is not about “empathy.” That’s where pastoral responses to tough situations comes in.

Yet polls bear out that American Catholics do not want to be told by the Vatican how to think.

To which I can’t help but ask the obvious question: if the papacy isn’t above all about being a teaching office that, while allowing wide latitude for individual opinion nonetheless has the essential function of laying down the acceptable parameters for those opinions, based on God’s revealed truth–if that isn’t the papacy’s primary role, then just what in the name of Thomas Aquinas does Townsend and her majority of American Catholics think it is?

For Obama, respectful disagreement and a willingness to recognize differences was the animating spirit of the presidential campaign, and it was central to his Notre Dame speech. That is the kind of politics many Catholics practice. They’re tired of watching the church grasp frantically for control at the expense of truth and love. In America last November, it showed: 54 percent of Catholics voted for Obama.

Notre Dame awarded the president an honorary degree because it saw the need to highlight the best of Catholic teaching as applied to politics: the ability to open the eyes of those who would prefer to keep them closed, and to open the hearts of those who would prefer not to know the pain that their actions cause. The pope has a lot to learn about Catholic politics in America. Barack Obama can teach him.

The point of which, I suppose, is that if the liberal Protestant Barack Obama were to run for pope, American Catholics would vote for him–which says more about the state of American Catholicism than it does about the truth of Roman Catholicism.