The Pope and the President

I. Leadup to the Visit: Is the Pope a Liberal?
If you haven’t heard, Pope Benedict XVI met with President Barack Obama on Friday. In the leadup to this, certain voices from the Catholic Left (particularly those who are more Left than Catholic) put their money on the pope taking a soft-line approach towards Obama’s pro-choice stances. After all, it passes for axiomatic that the pope must agree with Obama that exporting capitalism and abortion are the best way to create a pro-life society.

David Gibson unironically writes, in an article called “The Pope Is a Liberal: Who Knew?” that in his newest encyclical, Pope Benedict “also promotes an almost Obama-esque approach to abortion reduction, arguing that ‘respect for life’ is inextricably linked to economic development and child welfare.”

And indeed, Pope Benedict does link respect for life and economic development, but not in the direction Gibson suggests. He does not claim, for example, that wealth is the solution to the problems of abortion. On the contrary, Benedict says in paragraph 28 of the encylical in question, Caritas in Veritate:

“In economically developed countries, legislation contrary to life is very widespread, and it has already shaped moral attitudes and praxis, contributing to the spread of an anti-birth mentality; frequent attempts are made to export this mentality to other States as if it were a form of cultural progress […] Moreover, there is reason to suspect that development aid is sometimes linked to specific health-care policies which de facto involve the imposition of strong birth control measures.”

It would be hard to imagine a greater divide. President Obama believes that by improving the overall “quality of life” worldwide, while promoting greater access to abortion, abortion rates will naturally decline. The pope looks to the skyrocketing rates of abortion in the West vis-à-vis the rest of the world, and suggests that the assumptions of the Obama school of thought are badly misguided. In other words, the pope points out that the radical divergence of respect for life from runaway capitalism and wealth undermines any suggestion that what we’re seeing is “progress.”

So there are basically two extremes within Catholic America going into the papal-presidential visit: those who think that Benedict is going to side with Obama over the (all too few) vocally pro-life US bishops, since Benedict and Obama realize that the real way to fix the problem of abortion is roundabout; and those who are hoping, in Mark Shea’s words, that “the Swiss Guard run him through with pikes and defeat the evil of abortion the neocon way.” Outside Catholic America, things seem even wackier, with US News suggesting that this meeting will expose the pope, the head of the world’s largest, oldest, and most widespread organization, to “a global stage.”

II. The Visit
The meeting went nothing like the talking heads on the Left claimed it would, although it stopped short of the Swiss Guard scenario. Instead, the pope used the twenty minutes with President Obama in the most effective way possible. According to the joint statement released afterwards, “[in] the course of their cordial exchanges the conversation turned first of all to questions which are in the interests of all and which constitute a great challenge for the future of every nation and for the true progress of peoples, such as the defence and promotion of life and the right to abide by one’s conscience.

In other words, Benedict took Obama to task for his pro-choice stance generally, and his stance on conscience clauses for healthcare workers specifically. It’s a smart place to start: first, it’s the elephant in the room, and there’s a moral necessity not to act like it doesn’t matter. Second, “pro-choice” opposition to conscience clauses are particularly galling: if someone is pro-choice, shouldn’t that extend also to allowing healthcare workers not to prescribe or perform things which violate their conscience? Indeed, all of the pro-choice rhetoric, particularly from the Supreme Court (about the absolute autonomy of the individual), points this way. To take a stance in favor of forcing pro-life healthcare workers to help promote abortion isn’t pro-choice: it’s pro-abortion.

So from the sounds of the joint statement, it seems Benedict wasted little time getting down to business. But they also covered a surprisingly large number of other areas: immigration (“with particular attention to the matter of reuniting families”), international politics, the G8 summit, the Middle East, the ethical implications of the global economic crisis, food security, development aid, drug trafficking, tolerance, and probably the weather. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the twenty minute meeting lasted about 36 minutes.

In addition to the official gifts (from Obama, a stole which had been on the body of St. John Neumann; from Benedict, an autographed copy of Caritas in Veritate and a mosaic of St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican Basilica), both men gave the other one something to tolle, lege (“take up and read,” if you’re not an Augustine fan). The president gave the pope a letter from the ailing Senator Kennedy (the contents of which are apparently known only to the Senator and the pope). The pope, on the other hand, gave the president something of a wholly different character: the Vatican document on bioethics, Dignitas Personae. Specifically, the document deals with the ethical concerns surrounding things like cloning. The president promised the pope he’d read it on the flight to Ghana.

So the pope managed to use the time to both solidify the areas where the two world leaders are in basic agreement: immigration, (probably) drug trafficking, the need to care for the poorest of the poor (it wouldn’t be surprising if Benedict was to the political “left” of President Obama here, in fact), and so on, while still keeping the conversation focused in large part on the areas where the two diverge: the dignity of every human life from the moment of conception, and the implications of that concept on abortion and cloning.

III. The Aftermath: Spin Alley
Perhaps the biggest sign of the effectiveness of the meeting was the inability of the Obama camp to fully downplay the issue of abortion. Whispers in the Loggia has a full transcript of National Security Council deputy Denis McDonough’s press briefing after the fact. In it, McDonough lists last what chronologically came first (at least, according to the joint statement). When asked what the two leaders talked about, McDonough says they discussed “the encylical,” the food security initiative, the role of Archbishop Rodriguez in ensuring peace in the situation in Honduras, interfaith dialogue, the situation in the Middle East, and… oh yeah, “they also discussed immigration and their shared interests on reforming immigration in the United States; and then had an extensive — had a conversation about bioethics and abortion.”

Even in the attempt to sandbag this (he moves quickly from that admission to a much lengthier comment about Sen. Kennedy), he lets slip that they had an “extensive” “conversation” on the two issues. Even in written form, you can see him correct his earlier honesty.

The notorious Vatican Press Office succeeded where the Obama camp failed, however, in undermining the pope’s powerful punch:

Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican press office, told reporters that the Pontiff was impressed by the American president. Father Lombardi emphasized in his own comments to reporters that President Obama had spoken at length about his commitment to reduce the number of abortions performed in the US. Thus the papal spokesman– who has issued public statements reducing the force of papal pronouncements on several recent occasions– delivered the message that the White House had clearly hoped to convey to the world’s media.

Props to Deal Hudson for seeing this problem on the horizon, based on Fr. Lombardi’s performance to date (specifically, in allowing L’Osservatore Romano to move from being the voice of the pope to the voice of the US president).

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