The Vatican and Obama

John Allen has an interesting piece, in which he discusses the vitriol directed by some on the American Catholic right against Obama, and how it contrasts with the more measured tone of the Vatican. This seems to be causing some consternation in the United States, causing one bishop to exclaim to Allen “What is it that Rome doesn’t get?” As Allen notes, the day after his election, L’Osservatore Romano had an editorial calling Obama a “choice that unites”. Earlier this week, the pope issued a cordial statement (I find it quaint that the Vatican still issues telegrams!) in which he stated the hope that Obama would help build “a truly just and free society, marked by respect for the dignity, equality and rights of each of its members, especially the poor, the outcast, and those who have no voice” and “promote understanding, cooperation and peace among the nations.” As Allen notes:

“Vatican diplomats have repeatedly expressed optimism about what Obama’s presidency is likely to mean for the church’s foreign policy interests, especially in the Middle East and Africa. Whatever one makes of it, it’s a fact that the only people in the Vatican willing to take on Obama, at least so far, have been Americans.”

Nobody doubts the sincerity and uncompromising stance of Benedict on the abortion issue. So what gives? Allen speculates:

“Inevitably, however, the situation also highlights a basic contrast in Catholic culture on the two sides of the Atlantic. Catholics in Europe, even the most ferociously conservative, generally do not have a single-issue focus on abortion. They’re no less pro-life, but perhaps because there’s no prospect of rolling back abortion rights in most European nations, it’s not their signature crusade. In the States, abortion is the elephant in the room during any conversation about Catholics and politics, but not so across the water, and not so for the pope.”

I fear the problem is the dualism of much of the political discourse  in the US, the us-versus-them mentality (this mentality also affects how it engages with the world, as we have seen to our great detriment over past eight years). It’s the old problem of so many American Catholics thinking that because Republicans are often more closely aligned with the Catholic position on abortion than the other side, then a faithful Catholic must identify with this particular movement. Most Europeans would view this blinkered view as ludicrous. But just take the case of Douglas Kmiec and the vehement and nasty attacks on him by those who considered him a “traitor”.

The Vatican doesn’t think like that. It’s interesting that Allen singles out the Americans at the Vatican for being out of step on this issue. It is important to note that the Vatican was similarly cordial toward George Bush. American Catholics can learn a lesson here. We must always oppose positions that violate the tenets of Catholic positions, and — even as we fulfil our civic duty to support whatever secular leaders we deem most supportive of the common good– we must refrain slipping into the false position of assuming that all Catholics are obliged to think like we think, and that those who do not are the enemy, and not true Catholics.

So, if and when Obama starts promoting FOCA, then we must oppose vigorously. But the kind of preemptive hysteria coming from some elements of the Church after his victory was wholly improper, and quite distasteful. Where were these voices when Bush was engagingin an illegal war and occupation and instituting torture? For Catholic voices should have been just as strong on this issue, without fear of offending their supposed allies. Consistency is key, for without consistency, Catholics will be seen as merely another cog in an uncompromising partisan movement, and will never make inroads on the issues that matter.

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  • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

    Good post MM

  • http://ManBitesBlog.quiblit.com JohnMcG

    Again, I think another explanation for the difference is that there is no Roe v. Wade in Eurpean nations, so compromise on the issue is possible, and the future of the issue can’t be determined for a generation by a single election, and the stakes of every election aren’t as high.

  • http://thebeautifulroses.blogspot.com Lizzy

    Why wouldn’t the Vatican be cordial with President Obama? They don’t believe in diplomatic isolation … they always favor engagement.

    In any case, I think it would be inappropriate and crass for the Vatican to be anything less than gracious on this occasion.

    Mother Teresa never let a pro-choice President get away with anything, but I can’t imagine her sticking her finger in his eye on the day of his Inauguration.

  • Aran

    Unfortunately, the likelihood of Roe ever being overturned in the US are virtually nil as well. Until the Right to Life movement recognizes that repealing that law will no more end abortion than Prohibition ended alcohol use, the marches, petitions and vitriol directed at anybody not in line with their thinking is mostly for naught. The problem has to be attacked at the individual level by showing compassion, forgiveness, and alternatives to these women, most of whom have little comprehension of the magnitude of their action. Value of human dignity throughout the whole life cycle has to become paramount in our society again, and it’s a much bigger issue than just abortion. It has to include poverty, medical care, capital punishment, euthanasia, etc…

    We need to find common ground with those who disagree with us, not attack them. My pro-choice neighbor is less likely to tune out my belief that life begins at conception when she knows we share an opposition to the death penalty. Or when we’ve worked together on a winter coat drive for a childrens’ cause. That’s where progress will be made because it’s via respect for one another as people that opinions can be changed.

    Calling people “aborters” and “murders” only makes them tune out the message. The best Right to Life commercial I’ve ever seen http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2CaBR3z85c

  • http://ManBitesBlog.quiblit.com JohnMcG

    That’s also true — the Vatican as a state is probably called to be less, er, prophetic, than a US Bishop is.

  • Jeremy

    So, if and when Obama starts promoting FOCA …

    Why wait? There is plenty in his platform to praise (gitmo), and plenty to object to. Why stay silent awaiting the ‘big one’? The reversal of the MCP for starters – stated support for the ‘Prevention First Act’, something in there about freeing up federal funds for ESCR research, reversal of the defense of marriage act … lots of stuff. No need to stay silent and twiddle our thumbs. If we don’t speak up, no one will hear.

  • Jeremy

    And of course the Vatican greeted Mr. Obama in a manner befitting his position. If only the Bush Bashers could show as much civility.

    I fear the problem is the dualism of much of the political discourse in the US, the us-versus-them mentality
    Two party spoils system – and considering how little praise I have heard from you for any item on the republican agenda, and how little criticism on any item on the democratic agenda, I think you may be suffering from it as well…

  • http://www.samrocha.com Sam Rocha

    Very interesting post. I linked over at RIMATARA.

  • Bill H

    (I find it quaint that the Vatican still issues telegrams!)

    Perhaps besides the point of this post, but who do they send them to? Western Union, for example, stopped doing telegrams a couple years ago. I wouldn’t have the slightest clue where to go if I wanted to send or receive a telegram. Perhaps the State Department still has a working machine?

  • c matt

    Not surprising – Benedict deals with O on a much different level given their roles compared to us plebes. I would expect a much more diplomatic tone from one world leader to another than from a citizen on a blog comment box to another.

  • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

    I would not dismiss Benedict’s tone by reducing it to mere diplomacy. The Pope is more than a “world leader.”

  • http://ManBitesBlog.quiblit.com JohnMcG

    Right, but it is true that he is also a head of state, and not just a religous leader, either. The question is in what role he is acting from.

    It does seem that in sending the telegram, Benedict is acting more from his role as head of state, then as prophetic leader of the Church.

    That doesn’t mean that there is nothing for us American Catholics to learn from the tone that he has adopted, but I’m not condifient it’s “Chill out about FOCA.”

  • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

    Right, but it is true that he is also a head of state, and not just a religous leader, either. The question is in what role he is acting from.

    It does seem that in sending the telegram, Benedict is acting more from his role as head of state, then as prophetic leader of the Church.

    I am suspicious of phrases like “just a religious leader.” My sense is that Benedict does not see his role in a simplistic dualistic sort of way.

    That doesn’t mean that there is nothing for us American Catholics to learn from the tone that he has adopted, but I’m not condifient it’s “Chill out about FOCA.”

    Of course his greeting is not meant to say “chill out about the FOCA,” nor do I think that’s what MM is saying. But it’s important to recognize the reasons Benedict might have for being optimistic about an Obama presidency and not explain them away by assigning them merely to his role as “head of state.”

  • c matt

    I am sure he is optimistic about the same things we are optimistic about (less interventionist foreign policy, less torture) and less sanguine about other things which we are also less sanguine about (reversal of MCP, FOCA). You are not trying to say he is optimistic about O’s position on abortion, are you? I doubt B16 is that naive. At the same time, B16 recognizes O is now the Pres, and he has to do what he can to work with him.

  • Jeremy

    Of course his greeting is not meant to say “chill out about the FOCA,” nor do I think that’s what MM is saying.

    The last paragraph says to wait, that making an uproar is quite improper and embarrassing, and besides, if you weren’t in an uproar over torture, than you should be consistent (i.e. not in an uproar over foca), or if you are going to be vocal about something Obama may do, than you need to go back in time and be vocal about something else. I call BS. Being vocal about FOCA stops FOCA from being an issue because that let’s the pol’s know there will be a fight over it. But beyond FOCA, there is still plenty of work to do.

    Now that the pro-torture lobby is out of favor, I can’t see why we can’t all work together and be quite vocal.

  • http://forthegreaterglory.blogspot.com/2008/10/10-things-ive-learned-this-election.html Michael Denton

    Yes, you do deal with the good and oppose the bad. The Vatican has always done this with politicians. Obama should be praised for stopping the torture.

    However, I’m pretty confident that Morning Minion didn’t have any “look how nice Benedict is being to Bush! We should be nicer to Bush!” during the pope’s visit to the White House or to Bush’s very generous reception at the Vatican later last year.

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholicblogspot.com jh

    I actually found Allen’s Column sort of strange. As a whole I don’t think Catholic “conservatives” thought the Vatican should declare war on Obama.

    As to FOCA the US Bishops were at their finest. I think they made it clear as the Obama adminsitration was mapping out their first hundred days the Bishops made it clear that FOCA would have a political cost.

    It would be interesting to see the Vatican’s reaction to Bill CLinton. I don’t recall they declaredwar on Clinton either. In effect There is sort of a straw man being put forth here.

    COnservative Catholics largely went on the offensive because many of Presients Obama’s actions that go contray to the Catholic faith could be done by Executive order. This was just smart poltics and we hope it was noted.

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholicblogspot.com jh

    In related news THERE GOES THE OLIVE BRANCH as Rocco reports

    http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/2009/01/there-goes-olive-branch.html

  • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

    You are not trying to say he is optimistic about O’s position on abortion, are you?

    No of course not.

    But to be clear: Benedict obviously would oppose Obama’s abortion policy in the narrow sense, but would of course be optimistic when it comes to his position on a good many issues that are inherently connected to and directly relate to abortion.

  • Jessie

    Michael – Just what about Pres. Obama’s positions on abortion related issues do you think Pope Benedict will be supportive of? The increase in public funding for contraceptives? Greater and more explicit sex ed in schools for younger children along with “access” to contraceptives in school? The Prevention First Act? The Mexico City Policy? Public funding of embryo destroying stem cell research? Do pray tell what is “narrow” about opposition to these policies and just where are we going to see the “inherently connected to and directly related to abortion” issues that we should be supportive of?

    Because while we are waiting for those “inherently connected issues that we can support to reduce abortions” to come about, we are being sold down the river on all the issues directly affecting abortion. So please stop telling ardently pro-life people to tone down their defense of the unborn, its a rather unseemly position for you and the Vox Nova crowd to be taking. Kind of like supporting separate but equal instead of marching for full civil rights.

  • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

    Just what about Pres. Obama’s positions on abortion related issues do you think Pope Benedict will be supportive of?

    Um, read what I wrote one more time.

    Do pray tell what is “narrow” about opposition to these policies and just where are we going to see the “inherently connected to and directly related to abortion” issues that we should be supportive of?

    I don’t mean “narrow” in the negative sense. All I mean is that Benedict would obviously oppose Obama’s abortion policy if thought of only in terms of the legality of abortion. Issues related to abortion that often have a direct bearing on a woman’s decision are more in line with Catholic thinking, however. Those issues are, in fact, part of Obama’s abortion policy, more broadly conceived. That’s all I meant.

    So please stop telling ardently pro-life people to tone down their defense of the unborn, its a rather unseemly position for you and the Vox Nova crowd to be taking.

    I didn’t say anything remotely like this. The “position” you think I have is not, in fact, my position at all. Calm down.

  • Greg

    This isn’t surprising. Look at how the Pope treats the bishop of the SSPX. They continually insult him yet he will still lift the excommunications. He is incredibly gracious.

  • henry

    You Catholics have your head in the sand, happy clappy Obama is going to run over the Catholic Church over the abortion and other issues.

  • http://zippycatholic.blogspot.com/ Zippy

    …if and when Obama starts promoting FOCA, then we must oppose vigorously.

    I’m sure we’ll find MM’s series of anti-FOCA posts right alongside the blistering series he has been publishing since the election lobbying Obama not to rescind the Mexico City policy.

  • http://burgyetal.blogspot.com Chris Burgwald

    Archbishop Rino Fisichella had some fairly harsh things to say today about Obama’s decision on the Mexico City Policy, FWIW.

  • Knuckle Dragger

    MM – I guess the Vatican isn’t so wild about Obama after all. Who knew?

    Monsignor Rino Fisichella, who heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, urged Obama to listen to all voices in America without “the arrogance of those who, being in power, believe they can decide of life and death.”

    Fisichella said in an interview published Saturday in Corriere della Sera that “if this is one of President Obama’s first acts, I have to say, in all due respect, that we’re heading quickly toward disappointment.”

  • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

    Archbishop Rino Fisichella had some fairly harsh things to say today about Obama’s decision on the Mexico City Policy, FWIW.

    I guess the Vatican isn’t so wild about Obama after all. Who knew?

    Um, of course. Is anyone here suggesting that the Vatican would jump up and down in FAVOR of Obama’s abortion policy? Nevertheless, there is much that the Vatican would approve of in an Obama presidency. Thankfully the Vatican does NOT think like american Catholics!

  • http://burgyetal.blogspot.com Chris Burgwald

    Um, of course. Is anyone here suggesting that the Vatican would jump up and down in FAVOR of Obama’s abortion policy?

    No. But MM’s reaction doesn’t compare well with Fisichella’s.

  • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

    No. But MM’s reaction doesn’t compare well with Fisichella’s.

    It certainly does.

  • http://burgyetal.blogspot.com Chris Burgwald

    Michael, his entire post in the matter is focused on pointing out how those who are so upset about MCP don’t seem so concerned about other problematic issues with regard to foreign aid funding. But nowhere along the way does he come even *close* to expressing the disapproval of Obama’s actions as Fisichella.

    I don’t understand why he can’t express that level of disapproval to this move, rather than brush past it to focus on other’s alleged inconsistencies. Perhaps the two of you might exemplify for us how to be appropriately outraged by *all* the problematic issues of our day.

  • http://burgyetal.blogspot.com Chris Burgwald

    Addendum: Nate’s post at 7:06 last night in the MCP/Gaza thread succinctly encapsulates my point.

  • http://www.catholicanarchy.org Michael J. Iafrate

    Burgwald – The point of the post was not to express outrage about the policy, it was something else. You are asking him, basically, “why did you write about that and not about your opposition to the policy”? Well, because he wrote about something else, that’s why.

    Look, MM’s opposition to abortion is clear. That you need constant babying and reassertion of his position is your problem, not his.

  • http://burgyetal.blogspot.com Chris Burgwald

    I don’t need babying any more than Nate does, Michael. I was prepared to say that you agree with you, until I got to the second graph… I guess I still see the point of the first graph, but I don’t understand why you need to throw in stuff like the “constant babying” remarks… it only weakens your comments, Michael.

    I should note that I oppose all intrinsic evils. Now that I’ve said it, don’t expect me to repeat myself and post or comment on anything but what I’m *really* passionate about.

  • kurt

    The Holy See and the European bishops have had their turn at the wheel in running a political party (the Christian Democrats) and found it to be more a burden than a help.

    The American bishops would soon find the same problems if they had to run a political party – like having to explain why “all money is fungible” when it comes to allowing PP to bid on contracts for non-abortion services, but that all money is not fungible when it comes to government aid to Catholic schools. Or, for that matter, Bush’s subsidy of abortion under A-76 with the silent consent of conservative Catholics.