Ethics & Public Policy Center

The President and the Pope

Published in Newsweek on July 8, 2009


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


When he meets Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on July 10, President Barack Obama will find himself in conversation with a man who is, at heart, a teacher. Which raises the question: what lessons might Professor Ratzinger be interested in proposing to President Obama?

The first-and obvious-lesson has to do with what the Roman Catholic Church regards as the premier civil-rights issues of the moment: the life issues, including abortion, euthanasia, and embryo-destructive stem-cell research. Ever since the Saddleback Church debate during the 2008 campaign, Obama has steadfastly declined to address the moral argument at the heart of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the life issues, preferring instead to speak of different “beliefs” or different “views” on these deeply controverted questions. The professor-pope, who knows this, may gently remind his guest that what is at stake here is not a matter of taste or opinion, but a first principle of justice that can be known by reason: innocent human life is inviolable and must be afforded the protection of the law. That principle, Benedict XVI may continue, is not some peculiarly Catholic notion. Rather, it an argument that can be engaged by any serious person, irrespective of his or her theological convictions (or lack thereof). And grasping it is essential to securing the moral foundations of democracy-a point Benedict underscores in his new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate [Charity in Truth].

Should the president reply (as both his May commencement address at Notre Dame and his July 2 interview with religion reporters suggest he might) that people of good will ought to be able to find “common ground” on reducing the incidence of abortion and providing more effective aid for women in crisis pregnancies, Professor Ratzinger would likely thank Obama for such efforts-and then point out that any “common ground” will become slippery and untenable if it does not rest on the firm foundation of reason and moral principle. That, he might well add, is the lesson to be drawn from the two most impressive moral revolutions of the late 20th century: the American civil-rights movement, and the human-rights revolution that produced the Revolution of 1989 and the demise of European communism.

The second lesson the professor-pope might propose is less immediately obvious in the American media ground clutter. It has to do with the president’s subtle but striking insertion of himself and his office into an internal U.S. Catholic debate over Catholic identity, and what that identity requires of Catholic institutions such as colleges and universities, hospitals and other health-care facilities, and social service agencies.

The furor over Notre Dame’s invitation to the president to deliver the university’s commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate of laws didn’t have to do with politics but with ecclesiology-the debate over what constitutes Catholic identity, and who defines the Catholic “brand.” At Notre Dame, and in his recent interview with religion reporters, Obama took a partisan position in that debate, citing the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago as a role model who had taught the future president that the real Catholics, the good Catholics, were those “common ground” Catholics who sought to work with all people of good will in advancing mutual goals, especially service to the poor. What the president did not say at Notre Dame or to the reporters is that, despite Bernardin’s strong personal commitment to the pro-life cause, his “common ground” approach to public policy and his “consistent ethic of life” (or “seamless garment”) linkage of abortion, capital punishment, and nuclear disarmament served to permit an entire generation of Catholic politicians (including Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi) to take a pass on abortion by claiming that they were, after all, batting .667 on the consistent ethic of life.

By suggesting at Notre Dame that the real Catholics were those who welcomed his receipt of an honorary degree from a university claiming to have an entirely different view than his on the basic civil-rights issue of the moment, Obama was also saying that the real Catholics were not those who thought such an award a confession of institutional incoherence-those, for instance, like the Catholic bishop of Ft. Wayne-South Bend, John D’Arcy. At Notre Dame, the president in effect said that he, not Bishop D’Arcy (and the 80 U.S. bishops who publicly supported D’Arcy), would decide what constitutes authentic Catholicism-and did so to the applause of a considerable number of Catholic intellectuals and activists for whom the politics of the moment trumped any concerns about the chief executive playing arbiter of a dispute within a religious community, a genuine novelty in American history.

Benedict XVI will be aware of this ominous development and will understand that what is afoot here is a deft attempt by the administration to solidify its hold on Catholic voters by driving wedges between the Catholic bishops of the U.S. and the Catholic people of the U.S. Thus the president should not be surprised if the pope raises some rather urgent questions about how Obama’s playing referee in an internal Catholic scrum squares with the institutional separation of church and state-an American accomplishment that Professor Ratzinger has frequently saluted, and that Pope Benedict has been urging the worlds of Islam to emulate.

There is a rich menu of international issues the president and the pope could explore: the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran; the perilous condition of Christian communities in the Middle East, including the new Iraq; AIDS relief and prevention in Africa; environmental degradation; the world economic meltdown and its effects on the poorest of the poor; the legal definition of marriage. Yet it’s more likely that these specific issues-which come into play at the United Nations and other venues where the U.S. government and the Holy See interact diplomatically-will be discussed in meetings between senior Vatican diplomats and their American counterparts.

Summitry puts a premium on the big questions. The life issues as civil-rights issues, and the right of the Catholic Church to define its own character without interference or counsel from the president of the United States, are two such big questions. The odds are that those will be the focus of attention when the president meets the pope-no matter what the postmeeting communiques from the White House and the Vatican say.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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