July 10, 2009
U.S. Bishops and Vatican View Obama Differently
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
Ever since he took office, President Obama has been given a cold reception by some Roman Catholic bishops in the United States who have repeatedly emphasized their church’s differences with him on abortion, birth control and stem cell research.
But Mr. Obama is likely to receive a much warmer reception in the Vatican on Friday when he meets Pope Benedict XVI for the first time, experts on the church say.
Both the pope and the president recognize that despite their differences, they have an opportunity to join forces on international issues that are mutual priorities: Israel and the Palestinians, climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, increased aid to poor nations and immigration reform.
Their encounter comes just as Mr. Obama leaves the Group of 8 industrialized nations summit meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, and three days after Pope Benedict released a weighty encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate” or “Charity in Truth,” which updates Catholic social teaching for the global economic era.
“The pope is trying to engage America’s capacity for good in the world at a time when it’s really critical,” said the Rev. Drew Christensen, editor in chief of America magazine, a national Jesuit weekly, who worked for the church for many years in international relations.
“You’ll never get Rome to admit it,” Father Christensen said, but the Vatican has a different approach than the American bishops to working with governments. “Some of the critics of the president think you have to be at war, and the pope is saying, there’s a different way to proceed here and it’s very essential to the church’s approach, in that what you want is consensus.”
American bishops early on set an adversarial tone with the Obama administration. The president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops warned in a letter soon after the election that “aggressive pro-abortion policies” would “be seen by many as an attack on the free exercise of their religion.”
Dozens of bishops denounced the University of Notre Dame for having Mr. Obama give the commencement speech and receive an honorary degree. Last month, the bishops conference issued a statement supporting Bishop John M. D’Arcy, whose diocese is home to Notre Dame and who led the charge against the university.
The Vatican, by contrast, sent Mr. Obama a congratulatory telegram immediately after his election — a highly unusual gesture, because the Vatican usually waits for the inauguration, experts said. The Vatican sent another telegram for the inauguration, followed by a phone call from the pope.
During the Notre Dame controversy, the Vatican’s newspaper ran a markedly positive story about Mr. Obama. Some Vatican officials have even expressed an openness to the president’s “common ground” initiative to reduce, rather than outlaw, abortions — an approach met with suspicion and disdain by some American bishops and anti-abortion leaders.
“Clearly a lot of people in the Vatican like Obama,” said Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, a conservative religious magazine. “But they’re never going to have a relationship that’s super close.”
With the release of this new encyclical, Obama and B16 will probably have a much more interesting conversation than when Bush went to Rome. At least, I can see a lot of common ground (more than I did a week ago).
UPDATE: See this article that reports on the meeting, where they did discuss their disagreements on abortion and stem-cell research, while also seeking common ground on the issues mentioned above.