By Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service
Saturday, May 9, 2009
VATICAN CITY -- Ever since the University of Notre Dame announced that President Obama would receive an honorary degree and speak at this year's commencement ceremony, the critics -- including about one-fifth of America's bishops -- have been laying on the heat.
Yet amid all the furor over Obama's support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research, one voice has remained conspicuously silent: the Vatican.
The official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, which normally highlights news about the United States, has not published a word on the Notre Dame controversy. That omission is consistent with a record of friendly, even enthusiastic, treatment of Obama since his election in November.
Known as the "pope's newspaper," L'Osservatore is under the direct authority of the Vatican's Secretariat of State, which reportedly vets articles on sensitive topics before publication. The paper's coverage -- or lack of it -- offers the most extensive evidence so far that the Holy See has opted for a milder approach to Obama than have important elements of the U.S. church hierarchy.
Observers say the difference in emphasis and tone may be a deliberate decision that allows the Vatican to remain above the domestic American fray in its diplomacy with Washington. It could also reflect divergent assessments of the potential to work with Obama.
The U.S. bishops and the Vatican have indicated that they would work with the White House in areas where their aims and policies converge, such as poverty reduction and expansion of health care.
That has not kept prominent members of the church's American leadership, however, from underscoring their disagreements with Obama.
Chicago's Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has called the Notre Dame invitation an "extreme embarrassment." He recently had what he described as a polite yet confrontational meeting with the president, in which he stressed their differences on abortion.
Commentary from the Vatican, meanwhile, has tended to accentuate the positive, while playing down and even overlooking friction. It started with a papal telegram to celebrate Obama's "historic" election. L'Osservatore hailed the election on its front page as a "choice that unites" proving that America is "able to overcome fractures and divisions that until only recently could seem incurable."
When the paper reported Obama's nomination of Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic, as secretary of Health and Human Services, it failed to mention that her archbishop had forbidden her to receive Communion because of her support for legalized abortion.
The next day, L'Osservatore praised the president's budget for its heavy spending on welfare and health care, writing: "After a decade of exaltation of individual enrichment, today the USA, struck by the economic crisis, is witnessing instead the pressing resurgence of the values of solidarity."
The good press has culminated, so far, in a front-page story April 29 that characterized as exaggerated the "forceful concerns" of Catholic bishops over Obama's policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research, which the article said have turned out to be less than "radical."
According to Massimo Franco, author of "Parallel Empires," a history of U.S.-Vatican relations, such statements reflect genuine relief at the highest levels of the church.
During last year's presidential campaign, Franco says, many in the Holy See feared that Obama would turn out to be a global version of Spain's José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the socialist prime minister who has defied church opposition by legalizing same-sex marriage and pressing for liberalized abortion laws.
Instead, Franco says, Vatican diplomats have discovered Obama to be not an "anti-clerical ideologue" but a "pragmatist."
The Spanish bishops' experience in fighting a center-left government in Europe has taught the Vatican to be more cautious with Obama, Franco says.
"The confrontational approach with Zapatero proved to be a losing one because he exploited their hostility to push forward his policies," Franco said. "It can boomerang if you are too confrontational."