Pope Benedict XVI will receive President Barack Obama in audience at the Vatican on July 10. Let the gnashing of teeth begin.
Admit it, wasn’t your first impulse to call Dr. Mary Ann Glendon and ask, "If you were still the ambassador, would you show up or would you boycott?" The Cardinal Newman Society, which spent the better part of the spring telling the world that no Catholic could in good conscience share the stage with President Obama, perhaps now they will start issuing press releases entitled "Pope Creates Scandal" or "Outrage at the Vatican." The Catholic News Agency, which featured the headline "Vatican announces Pope’s vacation without confirmation of Obama visit" just a few weeks ago, has nary a mention of the visit on its website this morning. Cat got your tongue?
Obama’s Catholic critics need to re-calibrate their message and it is difficult to see how they will compete with the pictures of Obama in the frescoed halls of the Vatican, his beautiful wife and children in tow, shaking hands with the Holy Father. Actually, in addition to shaking hands, it is traditional that the Pope will present a gift to the President. Does that count as an "honor" of the kind forbidden by the bishops’ document "Catholics in Political Life"? Notre Dame, of course, has a tradition of conferring an honorary degree upon every new president that pre-dates presidential visits to the Holy See.
More importantly, and as mentioned yesterday while considering the new document on Catholic health care and labor unions, there are ways to work with people who do not agree with us on certain matters. Let it be said again and again: The Church’s commitment to human dignity, and concern for the protection of the unborn, is not just one issue among many. It is, in a certain sense, foundational to both our moral concerns and to our sense of the right ordering of our nation’s constitutional guarantees. In saying we must work with President Obama we are not suggesting breezily that we should "agree to disagree" and move on. We are saying that we can better witness to our beliefs by engaging the President. We are saying that if we spend time in the trenches with him fighting for the rights of workers, the rights of immigrants, and the rights of citizens to health care, our testimony on behalf of the unborn will be more persuasive to this President and his party which is otherwise so dedicated to the vindication of rights but here, on this issue, has a horrendous blind spot.
It was the collective failure of the U.S. bishops to find a way to be represented on the stage at Notre Dame’s commencement, to express their ambivalence about the President, to do what Father Jenkins did, which was to tell the President to his face that we admire him so much but we disagree profoundly with him on abortion and embryonic stem cell research. No single event focused the nation’s attention – live coverage of a commencement address! – on the relationship between the President and the Church, and the bishops spoke only with their absence which is a difficult message to hear.
Next month, Pope Benedict will send a different message. He will undoubtedly address the Church’s concern for the unborn and her opposition to embryonic stem cell research. He will also discuss the economy, and health care, and peace in the Mideast. He will hold the President’s large hands in his small hands, he will gather Sasha and Malia into the folds of his white cassock, he will treat the President with respect and humanity. Pope Benedict, like the Master, is not afraid to sit down with the publican because, in his wisdom, the Pope knows we are all publicans.