Some people believed that Pope Benedict’s meeting with Barack Obama amounted to a slap in the face of conservative American Catholics, who have criticized Obama’s liberal stands and actions on abortion, a silly notion considering the official status of both men. Even more obviously, they didn’t understand Benedict or know his history. When Obama met Benedict, the Pope began with a lesson on the fundamental nature of human life:
Pope Benedict XVI stressed the church’s opposition to abortion and stem cell research in his first meeting with President Barack Obama on Friday, pressing the Vatican’s case with the U.S. leader who is already under fire on those issues from some conservative Catholics and bishops back home. …
“In the course of their cordial exchanges, the conversation turned first of all to questions which are in the interest of all and which constitute a great challenge … such as the defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one’s conscience,” the statement said.
Even in his gift to the U.S. leader, the pope sought to underscore his beliefs. Benedict gave Obama a copy of a Vatican document on bioethics that hardened the church’s opposition to using embryos for stem cell research, cloning and in-vitro fertilization. Obama supports stem cell research.
“Yes, this is what we had talked about,” Obama said, telling the pope he would read it on the flight to his next stop, Ghana.
There is no word in this report about what Obama gave the Pope as a gift, although it does say that Obama brought a letter from Ted Kennedy and a request to keep the Senator in the Pope’s prayers. One hopes that Obama is getting better protocol advice on gift exchanges than he did with Gordon Brown’s visit and his audience with Queen Elizabeth. The Pope’s gift, though, sent a message. The Vatican later confirmed that Benedict had only given copies of his recent encyclical on human dignity in economics to other heads of state, not the policy position on bioethics.
This should surprise no one. As a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger had taken a conservative line on doctrine, supported in that effort by then-Pope John Paul II, and was not one to shy away from confrontation. He has gently but firmly insisted on reciprocity from Muslim states on freedom of Christians to worship when attending ecumenical meetings. Benedict planned to control the agenda by making his meeting with Obama a teaching moment, even if Obama had already closed his mind:
Denis McDonough, a deputy White House national security aide, said of the pope and Obama, “They discussed a range of those issues, and I think the president was eager to listen to the Holy Father.” He said Obama was “eager to find common ground on these issues and to work aggressively to do that.”
Bu[t] he said there may be some issues on which they can’t agree.
Clearly, and on those issues, Benedict has no plans to remain silent. Neither should we.