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The Vatican welcome mat for Obama

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 14, 2009

 After President Obama's quick visit to the Vatican, the standard analysis, conveyed in different ways by dozens of commentators, was that the Holy See seemed friendlier to the president than the American bishops. John Allen, America's leading Vaticanologist, put it this way

First, Benedict XVI yields pride of place to no one in the depth of his pro-life commitment, and there was no mistaking the forceful message the pontiff delivered to Obama on that score;? Second, the Vatican still seems inclined to a more benign reading of Obama’s positions than his fiercest American critics.

There's no question that the Pope's message to Obama, while unquestionably demanding respect for human life, was delivered in gentler, more oblique terms than the criticism from some American Catholic bishops-- to say nothing of American Catholic bloggers. The differences are real. Still, they should not be exaggerated.

It's no secret that Obama has some allies within the walls of the Vatican. But then he has admirers within the US episcopal conference as well. That's not where the key difference lies.

Vatican officials, nourished on the traditions of European politics, often react to American political developments in ways that Americans find hard to understand. That's a reality as well.

But there's another important factor in this case that isn't at all hard to understand. When President Obama visited the Vatican, to speak with the Pope, he was arriving as a head of state, and speaking with another world leader: a sovereign actor on the international scene. For such meetings, certain diplomatic conventions apply. It's to be expected that one world leader will be courteous to another; that disagreements will be couched in careful, nuanced terms; that direct criticism will be avoided. As a world power, the Vatican hopes to work together with the White House whenever their interests converge, so it's important to establish a working relationship as friendly as possible. Those diplomatic conventions don't apply to the domestic politics of a democratic society. It's to be expected that a domestic critic will challenge the president directly, using the most forceful language at his command. That's the way debate is conducted on the American political scene. So it's a mistake to assume that, just because the Pope was courteous and his language was guarded, he is more sympathetic toward Obama's policies than the American bishops. 

When L'Osservatore Romano carries favorable commentary on the Obama presidency, that's significant. When influential cardinals at the Vatican say they're persuaded that Obama is not pro-abortion, that's significant too. But when the diplomatic language of the Pontiff doesn't match the political statements of the US hierarchy, that's not necessarily significant at all. The different in the approach may camouflage a similarity in the message. It's important to read the messages carefully, and to notice the points that are emphasized.

In the case of Obama's visit with the Pope, the Pontiff's emphasis was unmistakable. He sent the president away with a copy of Dignitas Personae, indicating for all the world to see that he thinks Obama has something to learn about the dignity of human life.

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