In two days, Barack Obama will meet with Pope Francis for the first time at the Vatican, Obama’s second trip to the Holy See. The Vatican state visit will take place as part of a tour of Europe, where Obama’s popularity has fallen considerably as a result of the NSA scandal and his foreign-policy decisions on drone warfare. Senator Rand Paul suggests that Obama could break the ice with Pope Francis by promising not to spy on him anymore, but then tells Fox News that Obama should also pledge to stop infringing on the religious freedoms of those in the business world with free-contraception mandates:

“He ought to explain to the Pope why he is telling businesses in America they can’t remain true to their faith and stay in business,” the Kentucky Republican said on Fox News’s “Fox and Friends.” …

“The ‘Hobby Lobby’ case is being discussed today, and I think it’s important that he tell the leader of the Catholic Church why he thinks that businesses owned by Catholics can’t make their own decisions with regard to health care,” Paul said.

The outspoken senator said he agreed with the Vatican chief justice, who reportedly in a recent interview said Obama’s policies are “hostile” to Christians.

“And I think is something that really should be discussed in our country,” Paul said. “Most of us, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, believe … in free exercise of your religion. But if they’re telling you that your tax dollars have to go to something you find morally reprehensible, I think that’s not free exercise of religion.”

The Vatican chief justice, Cardinal Raymond Burke, offered a strong criticism of Obama in an interview last week in the Polish news magazine Polonia Christiana. His comments went beyond specific policies and addressed an overarching hostility towards faith and liberty:

10. The policy of the President of the US towards the Christian civilisation becomes more and more aggressive. Does Your Eminence notice any symptoms of Catholic reactions against this policy? If yes, what are they, if not why?

It is true that the policies of the President of the United States of America have become progressively more hostile toward Christian civilization. He appears to be a totally secularized man who aggressively promotes anti-life and anti-family policies. Now he wants to restrict the exercise of the freedom of religion to freedom of worship, that is, he holds that one is free to act according to his conscience within the confines of his place of worship but that, once the person leaves the place of worship, the government can constrain him to act against his rightly-formed conscience, even in the most serious of moral questions. Such policies would have been unimaginable in the United States even 40 years ago. It is true that many faithful Catholics, with strong and clear leadership from their Bishops and priests, are reacting against the ever-growing religious persecution in the U.S. Sadly, one has the impression that a large part of the population is not fully aware of what is taking place. In a democracy, such a lack of awareness is deadly. It leads to the loss of the freedom which a democratic government exists to protect. It is my hope that more and more of my fellow citizens, as they realize what is happening, will insist on electing leaders who respect the truth of the moral law as it is respected in the founding principles of our nation.

In my column today for The Week, I preview the summit between Francis and Obama at the Vatican, and note that the power dynamic has reversed since Obama’s 2009 visit:

Obama met with now-Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in the first year of his presidency, but the stakes and the calculations were much different in 2009. Benedict XVI had very little of the affection and sympathy that today’s media has showered on Francis since his succession last year. The abuse scandal weighed heavily on the Vatican at that time, as did a financial scandal involving the Vatican Bank. The sense was that the Pope’s supposed conservatism was making the Church into a figurative fortress, rather than a relevant force in the lives of the faithful. Obama, in contrast, exemplified the dynamism of secular hope and change, and had become the toast of Europe. Just a few months later, Obama would win the Nobel Peace Prize, an aspirational decision by the committee that they had reason to regret not long afterward, when Obama ramped up troop levels in Afghanistan and defended drone warfare and “kill lists.”

This time, it’s Obama who needs a boost — but it won’t come easy.

Obama has tried to invoke Francis of late in his attempt to assert his income-inequality agenda over the disastrous ObamaCare narrative dominating domestic politics, but don’t expect the Pontiff to let this opportunity pass. The Vatican has already summarily dismissed a New York Times attempt to paint Obama as an adopted son of the church, and Francis has his own agenda in mind:

The New York Times gave this history a sympathetic look this past weekend, shining a light on a little-known episode from Obama’s work before his political career began. Although not Catholic himself, Obama worked for the Diocese of Chicago in its outreach and service to black Catholics, part of the community-organizing work Obama did at the time. The Times‘ Jason Horowitz reports that the period “played a powerful role in his political formation,” and that the current director of that office credits Obama with playing a “key” role in developing the skills used to attract new members.

The timing of this article seems to be part of a charm offensive aimed at the Vatican, but so far it’s not exactly warming up his hosts. Horowitz includes a reaction from a senior official at the Holy See, who pointedly notes that the upcoming visit won’t be the love fest Obama would prefer. “We’re not in the old days of the great alliance,” Horowitz was told, a reference to Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II’s united front against communism. Instead, the Vatican wants to confront Obama on more recent issues — the ObamaCare contraception mandate, certainly, which has American bishops as outspoken on political issues as we have seen in quite some time, as well as the drone policies of the U.S.

Obama may have thought that this would be an easy photo op, and it will certainly provide one — but it may be that Obama will have walked into the lion’s den.