All Eyes on Rome: What To Expect

Every morning, I go to the Vatican website to consult the daily Bollettino where they post important announcements such as the "Rinunce e Nominee" and "Le Udienze." This morning’s had this notice under the latter category: "Il Santo Padre riceve questo pomeriggio in Udienza: S.E. il Signor Barack Obama, Presidente degli Stati Uniti d’America, con la Consorte, e Seguito."

Fifty years ago, you would have received low odds if you had bet that soon a non-Italian Pope would be greeting a non-white U.S. President. Prescinding (to use a word that Pope Benedict employed throughout his latest encyclical) entirely from what you think of either man, let us all recognize that this ethnographic datum is a good thing, a nail in the coffin of tribalism and exclusion. When those beautiful black children get wrapped up in the Holy Father’s white cassock, I know I am going to cry. And photographers are going to have a field day.


Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall in the Pope’s study when he meets the President? There are conflicting expectations of what will be discussed. Over at NCR, my colleague Dennis Coday has a report on an interview with two Catholics in Congress. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) said of the meeting, "I believe this meeting has the potential to have a lasting impact, to help not only inspire but to provide -- quite frankly -- the political cover in some cases to move forward in some of these areas that up to this point have been difficult for politicians to deal with." According to Coday, McGivern cited peace in the Middle East, extreme poverty and hunger as the difficult issues to which he was referring.

On a conference call yesterday sponsored by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Father Tom Reese, S.J., said he hoped that the meeting would help "Pope Benedict teach some American bishops that it is possible to walk and chew bubble gum at the same time." That is another way of saying that we need to find ways that both express the Church’s opposition to Obama’s pro-choice position and his decision to provide federal funds for embryonic stem cell research and yet work with him on other issues where there is agreement, such as universal health insurance, combatting world poverty, and immigration reform. My problem with this formulation is that it requires a caveat: On the life issues, we cannot merely "agree to disagree." We must never tire of voicing our concern and explaining why it is a foundational concern for us. But, Reese is correct that the Vatican has long since understood that whatever differences exist, it is important to keep channels open with government leaders and to try and work with them when possible.

In contrast to Reese’s hope, George Weigel, writing in Newsweek, thinks that "Professor Ratzinger" will lecture the President on life issues and confront him on what Weigel charges is an attempt by the President to pick sides in an intramural Catholic fight. Of course, Benedict is now a pastor, not a professor, so I doubt he will deliver a lecture. He is also not the Prefect of the CDF, and while he understands the difference in tasks, the neo-cons who loved him when he was a cardinal have been disappointed in him as Pope precisely because they wanted his pastoral care for the Church to be heavy on doctrinal enforcement. It is a little like thinking the vice-president for production can take over the company and not learn how to deal with marketing, distribution and the such, but who am I to explain the workings of capitalism to the neo-cons.

Weigel’s charge that Obama is picking sides in an internal Catholic debate has been leveled by others. It is based on the kind words President Obama had to say about the late Cardinal Bernardin. The neo-cons blame Bernardin for articulating a seamless garment approach to life issues that they believe muddied the waters and allowed pro-choice Democratic politicians to think it was okay to differ with the Church on abortion seeing as they were, as Weigel puts it, "batting .667 on the consistent ethic of life" by opposing the death penalty, supporting universal health insurance and calling for a reduction in nuclear armaments.

We saw earlier this week that Mr. Weigel took some liberties with Pope Benedict’s encyclical. Now he goes after the memory of Cardinal Bernardin. It is certainly not the case that Bernardin articulated his "semaless garment" approach because he wanted to help the Democrats. He wanted to show both sides of America’s political divide that they somehow had failed to see the inconsistencies in their positions. He saw the clarifying effect of the Gospel and challenged the entire culture to take the demands of human dignity seriously. For this he is slammed by Weigel, now that he is dead and not here to defend himself.

I also do not see how the President’s mentioning of Bernardin in his speech at Notre Dame can possibly be seen as divisive. Again, it tells us more about Weigel’s intellectual limitations than Obama’s that Weigel fails to note the reference was autobiographical. Obama was a community organizer when Bernardin was archbishop of Chicago. The future president was inspired by his leadership and his compassion. In other words, Cardinal Bernardin, by showing how he lived his humanity differently because of his encounter with Christ, changed the heart of another person by his example. There is a word for that: evangelization.

This method of evangelization by engaging others freely and showing how Christ has changed our lives is at the heart of the "new evangelization" that Pope John Paul II called for repeatedly. It is at the heart of the charism of Communione e Liberazione, the new ecclesial community that with Focolare and others is so close to the Holy Father’s vision for the Church’s future. It brings to mind countless scriptural texts, the most obvious being John 13:35: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

It is especially rich that Mr. Weigel should charge Obama with trying to divide Catholics one from another when he has made a career of trumpeting those bishops with whom he agrees and disparaging those he dislikes. His attack on Cardinal McCarrick as the cardinal was getting ready to retire, like his attack on the belated Bernardin, betrays a sense of entitlement that may be the inevitable consequence of his access to the papal apartment under John Paul II while working on his biography. But, there is a new Pharoah in Rome and he knows not the neo-cons. And, today, he is meeting with the President. Standing behind the Pope will be scores of Vatican monsignori who are, as I report at Newsweek today, thrilled to see President Obama.

I have no idea what the President and the Pope will discuss. I suspect the Holy Father will address the life issues, but not with a lecture. Instead, he will more likely engage Obama the way Cardinal Bernardin tried to engage the nation, by speaking to his conscience and trying to persuade. It is baffling that this President who appears so concerned about the uninsured, the immigrant and the hungry child in the Third World, does not extend his concern to the unborn. I think they will also spend a lot of time discussing the first half of that equation, the need to welcome immigrants, to help the poor in the Third World, to seek peace together. Then again, perhaps they will discuss Niebuhr.

I hope the meeting goes well whatever they discuss and that they find a way to build upon this meeting to work together on areas of common interest and concern. I hope the Pope enjoys the chance to visit with the children and with our stunning and charming First Lady. And, I hope all American Catholics will simply be proud of both country and Church and ask God's blessing on both men whose meeting is so important to the future of the world.

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9 years 9 months ago
I would hope that Pope would point out to the President that the point of his nation's family planning policies are to prevent the birth of people on his father's continent that look like him.  That might have an impact.
I would also hope that Constitutional Law Professor Obama would explain to the Pope the difference between enacting a law permitting abortion in the legislature and the ruling by the High Court that, until a fetus is granted legal protection by the national legislature, the ruling in Roe was entirely different and entirely appropriate.  It would certainly help the pro-life cause focus its efforts if it gave up its Quixotic argument about overturning Roe - which would impact all civil rights law, including those affecting people who look like the President.
I wish they had more time and that they had a chance to really get into the new Encyclical, which is marvelously written.  They might have, spoken about all of these things, as well as how much a pain George Weigel is.  Of course, they probably just ignored Weigel as unworthy of mention.  I note with gratitude to my local Diocesean publisher that it omitted Weigel's column from this week's edition.  Given his outrageous attacks on the Holy Father, I hope many editors and publishers cancel his contract - or at least make enough noise about doing so to make him nervous.
9 years 9 months ago
But, Michael, George Weigel is only picking out Cardinal Bernadin because he writes in red, and we all know they don't preach the real theology. :)
9 years 9 months ago
I was right.  Benedict XVI gave President BHO a booklet on bioethic.  In the spirit of Benedict's Spe Salvi, I praying that BHO will read it.
9 years 9 months ago
If you haven't already read it, the translation of Cardinal Georges Cottier's article on Barack Obama's Notre Dame and University of Cairo speeches is worth your time...
9 years 9 months ago
How nice to read (at CNS) that the Holy Father gave President Obama, in addition to a copy of the new encyclical, a copy of the instruction on bioethics and the human person.  I hope that our bishops who feel compelled to shun the president will follow the pope's example and learn how to engage the leader of our country - who has made it quite clear that he is more than open to dialogue and seeking common ground on disputed issues.
9 years 9 months ago
In the original version of this post, I left out two critical wrods "do not" from the paragraph about how to interpret Obama's mention of Cardinal Bernardin. I can only plead an insufficient amount of coffee when writing this morning. I have corrected the error and apologize for any confusion.
9 years 9 months ago
Roe entirely correct?  Huh?  You might wand to read some of the commentary of Judge Noonan on the judicial atrocity that Roe was and is, you know, the guy who followed BO at Notre Dame.  
9 years 9 months ago
Mr. Bindner's characterization of the consequences of overturning Roe is entirely wrong.  Overturning Roe, as well as the case law in Roe's wake, would simply mean that the Supreme Court does not recognize abortion as a fundamental right, which in turn would allow states to exercise greater regulation over its practice.  Overturning Roe would do nothing to weaken the civil rights movement (which, it should be noted, had already made great gains - judicially and legislatively - BEFORE Roe was decided).
Second, Mr. Bindner fails to understand that Roe made ''legal protection'' of unborn life virtually impossible.  Once the Court declares something to be a fundamental right (as the Court said about abortion), any statute that limits or restricts that right is almost always struck down.  Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) gave states slightly more power to regulate abortion, but not much.  It is because of the Court's improper intrusion into the abortion debate that has made legislative efforts to protect the unborn so difficult, if not impossible.   
9 years 9 months ago
Abortion is a fundamental right because privacy is a fundamental right.  Privacy applies because, legally, the fetus is not considered a person.  The logic of Roe falls apart if the fetus is granted the rights of personhood.  The question of who can do that is jurisdicational.  Under the plain text of the 14th Amendment, the authors are clear that the states cannot be trusted to define who is and who is a person.  Indeed, the history of the amendment's incorporation into the fabric of American life shows time and time again that conservative state majorities are loathe to honor the rights of minorities, including African and Hispanic Americans and women. 
The place where the status of the fetus can be changed is Congress - and Congress only - according to the plain language of the 14th Amendment.  The constant drumbeat to overturn Roe judicially is a distraction.  It is also the keynote in the conservative theme song about activist judges.  It is designed for electoral purposes (except most Catholics no longer pay attention to it as they once did).  That distaste for activist judges includes all aspects of civil rights law - from recognizing that even though hispanics are considered white - they could be recognized to experience discrimination as a class, to the rights of undocumented aliens to school attendance, to the right of gay couples to engage in consensual sex to the right to burn an American flag.  I've been a Republican - so I no how pervasive this meme is.
As to the meeting on Friday, I've heard nothing to indicate that Prof. Obama offerred Prof. Ratzinger an explanation for Roe based on constitutional law.  While this was polite and politic, ultimately it was a lost opportunity.  That same politeness on the parts of Cuomo, Kerry and Biden has not served Catholic Democrats well.
9 years 9 months ago
The National Catholic Reporter had some good coverage of this visit as well:


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