Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Icy Vatican reception damaging to Pelosi

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 19, 2009

 Did you see the photo of Nancy Pelosi with Pope Benedict XVI during her visit to the Vatican yesterday?

No, you didn't. There was no photo, because there was no photographer on hand when they met.

The Speaker of the House went to Rome hoping for a photo op. A smiling picture of herself with the Pontiff would have done a great deal to ease the tensions between Pelosi and the American hierarchy: tensions caused by her unswerving defense of legal abortion. That photo would have burnished her credentials as the "ardent Catholic" she claims to be.

But there was no photo op. After a month of disastrous public-relations gaffes, the Vatican handled this meeting quite nicely. The meeting was held in private. Without violating diplomatic protocol the Vatican managed to convey an unmistakable coolness about the encounter. (The New York Times, picking up the proper nuance, reported: "In a statement, the Vatican said Benedict 'briefly greeted' Ms. Pelosi….") Best of all, the Pope-- who rarely issues public statements after meetings with visiting dignitaries-- followed up on the meeting with a clear public statement reiterating the duty of Catholic politicians to protect the dignity of life.

Undoubtedly frustrated by this adroit handling of her visit, Madame Speaker issued her own statement, saying that she had spoken with the Pope about her earlier visit to the Vatican. (And if he plays his cards right, maybe the Holy Father will have a chance to watch the Pelosi family's home movies?) She said that she had also spoken to the Pontiff about world hunger and global warming. Perhaps those topics were on her agenda, but it is significant that they were not mentioned in the terse Vatican statement. There was no happy-talk from the Holy See: no mention of shared concerns and mutual interests, nothing that would distract attention from the one essential point that the Pope wanted to make.

Pelosi ignored that point in her own statement. But reporters were not distracted. George Weigel was the first to call attention to the huge disparity between the two public accounts of the meeting. Writing for National Review Online, he asked: "Were They at the Same Meeting?" Fox News agreed that, based on the two statements, "it appears the pope and the politician attended two different get-togethers." And USA Today's religion blogger Cathy Lynn Grossman took up the refrain: "Were they in the same room?"

Needless to say, no one was questioning the Vatican's version of the encounter. Reporters realized that Pelosi was doing her best to put a positive spin on a damaging story. She wanted some affirmation from the Pope; instead she received a clear rebuke.

If the Speaker had had her way, the photo-op with the Pope could have been cited as evidence that a Catholic politician can legitimately support legal abortion. Instead the headlines told exactly the opposite story:

  • Pope tells Nancy Pelosi life must be protected (AP)
  • Pope raises abortion at meeting with Pelosi (CNN International)
  • Visiting Pope, Pelosi Hears a Call to Protect Life (New York Times)

Nicely done.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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