American pro-lifers winced when the Vatican rolled out the red carpet for pro-choice President Barack Obama's July 10 visit to Pope Benedict XVI, but they shouldn't have been surprised. The Holy See does that routinely when presidents and other world leaders drop by -- including those whose policies conflict with the Church's values and even some known to be of less than sterling personal character.
Even so, the dismay of pro-life groups on this particular occasion was understandable. As Pope Benedict and Obama met, the Democratically controlled Congress in Washington, D.C., was giving serious consideration to proposals for health care reform that include mandated coverage for abortion, thus fulfilling Obama's promises to pro-abortion groups while running for president.
So why the ostentatiously friendly treatment of Obama in Rome? There are several explanations.
One explanation lies in the version of foreign policy "realism" that traditionally prevails in the Vatican Secretariat of State. Vatican diplomats typically accept the need to deal with worldly powers as they are, warts and all.
Another explanation is that significant elements of the Holy See, including the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, apparently share the idealized perception of Obama common in Europe these days.
Also playing an important role in how the Vatican approaches political leaders is its genuine desire to promote international peace and human rights, along with its equally genuine desire to promote the interests of the Church.
Not to be discounted either is its perennial wish to be considered a serious player in world affairs. The Holy See, which now has diplomatic relations with 175 nations, has come a long way in the 90 years since the pope was a self-described "Prisoner of the Vatican" and the Italian government vetoed papal participation in the peace talks after World War I. It has no intention of losing ground now if it can help it.
Note, too, that Obama is hardly the first American president to get a warm greeting at the Vatican.
Despite Vatican opposition to the war in Iraq, Pope Benedict was notably friendly to George W. Bush when he visited. Bush reciprocated by hosting a lavish White House ceremony to greet the pontiff during his U.S. visit in April 2008.
Earlier, Pope John Paul II exchanged private messages with President Ronald Reagan about events preceding the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Clearly, too, the Vatican takes a supportive view of some policies of the Obama administration. So, for instance, it hopes Obama will be a force for stability and peace in the Middle East. The president's speech in Cairo, Egypt, directed to the Muslim world, was welcomed in that context.
But how the Vatican would react if Israel bombs Iranian nuclear facilities without objection from the United States -- something Vice President Joseph Biden recently suggested might happen -- is not so clear.
The abortion question
And then there's abortion.
Pro-life groups in the United States currently are up in arms at the prospect that Congress may move ahead with a version of health care reform requiring abortion coverage paid for by employers or taxpayers or both.
That could happen, it's said, via either of two legislative plans for reform -- one sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the other backed by influential committee chairmen. During their meeting, Obama gave the pope a letter from Kennedy, who is a Catholic and is suffering from brain cancer.
Both plans call for appointed advisory panels working with the Secretary of Health and Human Services -- former Kansas governor, Kathleen Sebelius, another pro-choice Catholic -- to decide what services constitute "reproductive care" as provided by the legislation.
In the abortion debate, "reproductive care" is code language for abortion. Two years ago, as a candidate, Obama told the Planned Parenthood Action Fund that it would be "at the center" of his proposals for health care reform. Pro-abortion groups support the approach.
The Vatican communiqué after the 36-minute session between Pope Benedict and Obama called their conversation "cordial" but gave no details. It said the two men -- whose meeting came immediately after a gathering of leaders of wealthy nations in L'Aquila, Italy -- discussed "the true progress of peoples" including "defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one's conscience."
Conceivably, that was a reference to possible inclusion in Obama's health care plan of a conscience clause exempting doctors and nurses who object to abortions on conscience grounds from being involved. Shortly before leaving on the trip that included meeting the pope, Obama told several religious journalists he favored a "robust" conscience clause but offered no specifics.
After their private session, Pope Benedict gave the president a copy of his new encyclical on economics, Caritas in Veritate ("Charity in Truth") and a Vatican document setting out Church views on bioethical issues, including stem-cell research that involves killing human embryos.
Last March, over pro-lifers' objections, Obama expanded the scope of research eligible for federal funding to include projects using new stem-cell lines as well as pre-existing ones. The National Institutes of Health recently announced regulations implementing his policy.
Other topics covered by the pope and the president were immigration, especially family reunification, Middle East peace, the economic crisis, world hunger and development, drugs, and the need for education in tolerance. All that in little more than half an hour.
The 27th U.S. president/pope meeting
A total of 12 sitting U.S. presidents have met with a total of five popes in the last nine decades, and as the list of the meetings below shows, the meetings have happened with increasing frequency.
1) Woodrow Wilson and Benedict XV, Vatican, Jan. 4, 1919.
2) Dwight D. Eisenhower and John XXIII, Vatican, Dec. 6, 1959.
3) John F. Kennedy and Paul VI, Vatican, July 2, 1963.
4) Lyndon Johnson and Paul VI, New York, Oct. 4, 1965, and 5) Vatican, Dec. 23, 1967.
6) Richard Nixon and Paul VI, Vatican, March 2, 1969, and 7) Vatican, Sept. 29, 1970.
8) Gerald Ford and Paul VI, Vatican, June 3, 1975.
9) Jimmy Carter and John Paul II, White House, Oct. 6, 1979, and 10) Vatican, June 21, 1980.
11) Ronald Reagan and John Paul II, Vatican, June 7, 1982, and 12) Fairbanks, Alaska, May 2, 1984, and 13) Vatican, June 6, 1987, and 14) Miami, Sept. 10, 1987.
15) George Bush and John Paul II, Vatican, May 27, 1989, and 16) Vatican, Nov. 8, 1991.
17) Bill Clinton and John Paul II, Denver, Aug. 12, 1993, and 18) Vatican, June 2, 1994, and 19) Newark, N.J., Oct. 4, 1995, and 20) St. Louis, Mo., Jan. 26, 1999.
21) George W. Bush and John Paul II, Castel Gandolfo, July 23, 2001, and 22) Vatican, May 28, 2002, and 23) Vatican, June 4, 2004, and 24) and Benedict XVI, Vatican, June 9, 2007, and 25) White House, April 16, 2008, and 26) Vatican, June 13, 2008.
27) Barack Obama and Benedict XVI, Vatican, July 10, 2009.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.