Obama, Pope Benedict To Find Common Ground?

Pope Benedict XVI signs his third encyclical. i

Pope Benedict XVI signs his third encyclical, Charity in Truth, on Tuesday at his studio in Vatican City. L'Osservatore Romano Vatican Pool/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption L'Osservatore Romano Vatican Pool/Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI signs his third encyclical.

Pope Benedict XVI signs his third encyclical, Charity in Truth, on Tuesday at his studio in Vatican City.

L'Osservatore Romano Vatican Pool/Getty Images
President Obama speaks at a news conference during the G-8 summit. i

President Obama speaks at a news conference during the G-8 summit on Thursday in L'Aquila, Italy. Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
President Obama speaks at a news conference during the G-8 summit.

President Obama speaks at a news conference during the G-8 summit on Thursday in L'Aquila, Italy.

Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

After winding up his visit to Italy for the G-8 summit Friday, President Obama has his first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.

Many American Catholics have strongly criticized Obama's positions on abortion and stem cell research, but the Vatican has been much more benevolent in its assessment of the new president.

The day after November's election, the pope broke Vatican protocol, sending a personal note of congratulations to the president-elect rather than waiting for Inauguration Day. He called the Obama victory "historic."

Still, the personalities of the president and the pope could not be more different.

"You're talking about the avatar of hip versus, you know, an octogenarian European intellectual," says John Allen, longtime Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

But Allen says that despite the contrasts on some basic issues, there is a lot of common ground between Pope Benedict and Obama.

"They're both in favor of expanded health care. ... They're both in favor of immigration reform. They both favor a multilateral approach to foreign policy and, in particular, they both have, in their ways, reached out to the Islamic world," Allen says, referring to the pope's recent visit to the Middle East and the president's speech in Cairo last month.

Benedict's top priority in interfaith relations is promoting an alliance of civilizations with Islam. Vatican officials were impressed with the president's outreach to Muslims.

On all these issues, Allen says, the Vatican believes the pope and president can do business.

Differing Reactions

Speaking to reporters ahead of the visit, Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser, described the impact of Catholic social teaching on the president's thinking.

"The president often refers to the fundamental belief that each person is endowed with dignity," he said. "The president often underscores that dignity of people is a driving goal in what we hope to accomplish in development policy, for example, and in foreign policy."

But some American prelates have been much less benign. Cardinal James Francis Stafford, for many years one of the highest-ranking Americans at the Vatican, said last fall that Obama's statements on abortion reflect "an agenda and vision that are aggressive, disruptive and apocalyptic."

More recently, former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, who now heads a Vatican tribunal, said the Democratic Party risks becoming the "party of death."

In addition, many American Catholics strongly criticized the University of Notre Dame for inviting the president to be commencement speaker in May and granting him an honorary degree.

In sharp contrast, the official Vatican daily, L'Osservatore Romano, gave the new administration a positive review after Obama's first 100 days in office, saying in a front-page editorial that even on ethical questions, Obama had not confirmed the "radical" direction he had discussed during the campaign.

The newspaper of the Italian bishops praised Obama's "great honesty" and "great intelligence," adding that it is clear that he is not trying to divide the Holy See from American bishops.

A Cultural Divide

One basic difference between American and European Catholic cultures helps explain these sharply different attitudes, Allen says.

"In the United States, abortion tends to be the defining social and political issue and everything else, in a way, takes second place, whereas in Europe that has never been the case. So even for the most conservative Catholics in Europe, they don't evaluate political leaders exclusively through the basis of their positions on abortion and other so-called life issues," he says.

One of the key topics of discussion between the pope and the U.S. president is likely to be the global economic crisis. The visit comes on the heels of Tuesday's release of Benedict's third encyclical, Charity in Truth, in which he called for a new financial order guided by ethics and dignity and lamented that greed had brought about the worst economic downturn since the Depression.

The timing of the encyclical's release just before the American president's visit to the Vatican is likely to shape their agenda.

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