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The Deacon's Bench

With President Obama and Pope Benedict about to have their first face-to-face meeting tomorrow, commentators are weighing in on What It Will Mean.

Here’s the WaPo’s (Catholic columnist) E.J. Dionne:

Whether he is the beneficiary of providence or merely good luck, Obama will have his audience with Benedict just three days after the release of a papal encyclical on social justice that places the pope well to Obama’s left on economics. What a delightful surprise it would be for a pope to tell our president that on some matters, he’s just too conservative.

The disjunction between Vatican attitudes toward Obama and those of the most conservative forces inside the American Catholic Church has been obvious from the moment Obama won election.

The conservative minority among the bishops as well as political activists on the Catholic right have insisted on judging the president only on the basis of his support for legal abortion and stem cell research.

But the Vatican clearly views Obama through a broader prism. Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio in Washington, has privately warned American bishops that harsh attacks on the president threaten to make the church look partisan.

The Vatican press has been largely sympathetic to Obama, and in a recent article, Cardinal Georges Cottier, who was the theologian of the papal household under Pope John Paul II, praised Obama’s “humble realism” and on abortion went so far as to compare the president’s approach to that of St. Thomas Aquinas. (Pray this won’t go to Obama’s head.)

No one pretends that the Vatican is at peace with Obama’s views on the life issues, and Benedict mentioned the church’s resistance to abortion at three points in this week’s economic encyclical, “Charity in Truth.”

But the pope and many of his advisers also see Obama as a potential ally on such questions as development in the Third World, their shared approach to a quest for peace in the Middle East and the opening of a dialogue with Islam.

The Vatican’s stance and the broadly positive response to Obama’s Notre Dame speech have at least temporarily quelled the vocal opposition to the president among more conservative American bishops. Now, parts of the hierarchy are working closely with the administration on health-care reform, immigration and climate-change legislation.

Benedict’s encyclical may provide the best perspective for understanding why a pope seen as a conservative views Obama more favorably than do most Catholic conservatives in the United States.

While American conservatives, including most Catholics in their ranks, see capitalism in an almost entirely positive light, Benedict — following a long tradition of church teaching — is more skeptical of a system rooted in materialist values. In that sense, he is to the left of his American flock.

Continue at the link to find out why Dionne feels that way.

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