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.