Obama and the Pope: Symbolism, Not Substance


This article was originally published on Huffington Post.

Earlier this week, in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict claimed that the church does not "interfere in any way in the politics of States." These words were especially pertinent for Friday’s meeting between President Obama and the pope.

While both men are world leaders, the pope and the president maintain distinctly different roles as a religious leader and a political leader, respectively. We must be clear that the pope does not command the same type of global responsibility as a member of the Group of Eight, such as the United States, and to expect G8-type political outcomes from this meeting would be unrealistic and wrong.

Although Pope Benedict and President Obama play different roles in the world, there are undoubtedly valuable issues that the two men can discuss. Taking even a quick look at Caritas in Veritate, one will find many examples of the similar outlooks the two leaders share on issues pertaining to poverty, the rights of immigrants and the benefits of scientific progress. Both men strive for an end to both war and hunger. Both aim to safeguard the environment and protect religious freedoms. The pope may have the moral stature to promote these causes but the president has the political power to effect change at a policy level.

The common views the pope and president share affect the lives of people in the US and around the world, especially those living in poverty. As such, it is beneficial for them to discuss these issues. With wars abounding and financial crises overwhelming us, it is always positive when people of good will and good intent can agree, discuss and inspire one another to work even harder to better our world.

President Obama need not lecture the pope about the inner workings of the Catholic church. It is a widely known fact that Catholics the world over disagree with the dictates of the Vatican on issues pertaining to sexual and reproductive health and rights. Catholics must let the pope and other members of the church hierarchy know that the Vatican is out of touch, the teachings flawed and people suffer as a result. That message need not come from President Obama; rather, it is up to Catholics to raise these concerns.

In the same vein, Pope Benedict need not lecture the president about the needs of people in the US. This nation was founded by those who suffered from religious persecution and fled to America to be free to practice religion as they saw fit. It is therefore no surprise that the separation of church and state was and continues to be a cornerstone of US democracy. Politics should not interfere with religion nor should religion interfere with politics. People of every religion and no religion should be equally represented; freedom of religion and freedom from religion must be guaranteed. With this in mind, the pope should not feel the need to lecture President Obama on matters of internal US policy.

However, recent evidence suggests that the pope’s claims that church does not "interfere in any way in the politics of States" are more than a little disingenuous.

In the United States alone, we have several examples. Take, for instance, when the US bishops successfully lobbied to strip life-saving family planning measures from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) bill in 2008. Moreover, the bishops continue to lobby for conscience clauses (or, more correctly, refusal clauses) that protect entire institutions-not individuals-and exclude abortion and contraception from healthcare reform. Both measures could limit access to vital reproductive healthcare services. These are all classic examples of how the pope, through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, interferes in US politics.

The reality is that this meeting is more about symbolism and respect for each other and the institutions they represent than anything else. As Pope Benedict is a religious leader and does not take on the responsibilities that President Obama has as a political leader, we cannot and should not expect any substantial outcomes. However, the two men can and should definitely discuss what they agree on and inspire one another to move forward doing good work.

Post-Meeting Update

The meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and President Obama was, by all accounts, cordial, despite the fact that the two men discussed many issues, some of which they agree about, others not.

According to the Vatican’s chief spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, their conversation started with “the defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one’s conscience,” and also encompassed a host of other topics including the Middle East peace process, the economic crisis, food security and immigration.

They are both men of principle who are convinced that the policies they support are the correct ones. While there are many issues on which they agree, it is refreshing to see that it is possible to have discussions about abortion and stem-cell research that do not descend into shrill protests. The pope and the president’s cordial meeting should be an example to the loud minority that opposed the very idea of Obama’s presence at the University of Notre Dame in the US earlier this year.

It is also very refreshing to hear that the pope acknowledged the importance of conscience in making decisions that have ethical and moral consequences. Catholic teachings place a high value on an individual’s conscience, and we hope that the reference to this teaching reminds the pope, the president and everybody else to respect the conscientious decisions of others.

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  • invalid-0

    Ok so the pope’s not allowed to talk to the President about the U.S because it might be considered “lecturing” and the President’s not allowed to talk about the Vatican to the pope for the same reason. Umm… beyond the most vague of generalizations… why are you happy about this meeting? I mean beyond “inspiring each other to do good work”. More importantly, if the president was to meet with the Dali Lama do you really think they’d manage to avoid any discussion of spirituality? Would that be ok with you or would that be wrong too? Also the Conference of Catholic Bishops includes U.S. citizens who also are Catholic Bishops. U.S citizens have every right to be politically active. Are you “interfering” every time you cast your vote?

  • invalid-0

    To your list of concerns, John, I would add that no religious leader should be allowed to threaten to withhold someone’s access to religious rites based on that way that individual votes. This has been an issue within the Church. My synagogue has people from a wide spectrum of political outlooks that include a full range of economic, social and public policy perspectives on abortion, gun control and more. Regardless of who the folks vote for, we welcome them for their faith. Clergy must not use religious pressure to impose political conformity.

  • crowepps

    Earlier this week, in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict claimed that the church does not "interfere in any way in the politics of States."

    It’s hard to believe that he could have said that with a straight face, considering all of the news coverage about political speechifying from the cardinals and archbishops and bishops and priests, not only here but in the Phillipines, in Italy, in South America, in just about any country where the church has a strong presence. Perhaps he’s drawing a distinction between ‘the Church’ and the statements of its heirarchy?

     

    Just for one example: "Catholic Church Collecting Signatures For Referendum On Mexico City Bill That Would Allow Abortion During First Three Months’ Gestation" http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/68361.php

     

    That sure sounds like interferring with politics to me.