Forging a New Relationship

By Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service
Saturday, January 3, 2009

VATICAN CITY -- In the 24 years since the United States and the Holy See established full diplomatic ties, relations have never been closer or warmer than during the administration of President Bush.

The two sides broke over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but Bush's personal esteem for popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and his agreement with Catholic teaching on such controversial issues as abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, have fostered a special rapport. Bush has met six times with the leader of the Catholic Church, more often than any other U.S. president.

The relationship between the Vatican and the White House is bound to change this month with the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, whose support for abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research has drawn denunciations from a number of church leaders. Yet informed observers agree that both sides have strong incentives and opportunities to avoid conflict and build on the recent history of collaboration.

Relations got off to a cordial start the day after the Nov. 4 election, when Benedict sent a telegram to Obama, noting the "historic" nature of his victory and assuring him of his prayers that God would "sustain you and the beloved American people in your efforts . . . to build a world of peace, solidarity and justice."

Obama, in turn, called the pope a week later to thank him for the telegram, although neither one would describe their conversation.

"There are many points on which there will be agreement" with the Obama administration, Cardinal Pio Laghi, 86, the former Vatican envoy who represented the Holy See to Washington from 1980 to 1990, said in Rome a few days ago.

From the U.S. hierarchy, however, congratulations have been mixed with criticism. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the church should "rejoice" in the election of the country's first African American president, but insisted that it would confront Obama over abortion and stem-cell research.

Even stronger were the words of Cardinal James Francis Stafford, former archbishop of Denver, who said that Obama's statements on abortion reflect "an agenda and vision that are aggressive, disruptive and apocalyptic." (Stafford, who as head of a Vatican court is one of the highest-ranking Americans at the Holy See, noted that he spoke only on his own behalf.)

The contrast in tone between U.S. bishops and the Vatican reflects a deliberate "division of labor," said Massimo Franco, author of a forthcoming history of U.S.-Vatican relations, "Parallel Empires." That way, Franco said, the Holy See can remain "above the fray" while local Catholic leaders apply public pressure to the incoming president.

Of most urgent concern to the church is clearly the Freedom of Choice Act, a proposed bill that would overturn a host of restrictions on abortion. Critics say the proposal would eliminate so-called conscience exemptions for publicly funded health-care facilities, thus forcing Catholic hospitals to provide abortions or shut their doors.

In an oft-cited speech to Planned Parenthood in 2007, Obama vowed to sign the bill as "the first thing I'd do as president." Yet Obama's Catholic supporters cite his promises to find "common ground" with abortion opponents as reason to expect moderation.

"FOCA is not in the Democratic platform, and in the third debate he said that he favored restrictions on late-term abortions, which is contrary to FOCA," said Nicholas P. Cafardi, a member of Obama's Catholic advisory board and an opponent of legalized abortion.

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