It's been 25 years since the United States and the Vatican established full diplomatic relations. Despite divisions over the war in Iraq, relations have been warmest during the current Bush administration. In the Letter From Europe, NPR's senior European correspondent Sylvia Poggioli reports that Vatican officials are bracing for a sharp shift in relations under an Obama administration that will be openly pro-choice.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Pope Benedict XVI hailed Barack Obama's victory as historic. But the Catholic hierarchy is worried about the president-elect's positions on what Catholics call life issues. Less than a week after the election, the Vatican's top health official, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, warned the president-elect that it's unethical to give the green light to embryonic stem cell research.

Even tougher words came from Cardinal James Francis Stafford, head of a Vatican court and one of the highest ranking Americans at the Vatican. The cardinal said in a speech that Obama's statements on abortion reflect an agenda and vision that are aggressive, disruptive and apocalyptic.

On becoming Pope, Benedict had hoped that Europe would spearhead a battle against what he calls the dictatorship of relativism. But the old continent even rebuffed his call for including a reference to God in the European Union Constitution. Impressed by American religiosity, the Pope increasingly looked to the United States as a beacon of positive relations between religion and politics. Such good relations developed between the Vatican and President Bush, who opposes abortion, that he visited heads of the Catholic church six times more than any other U.S. president.

Now, the Vatican's number one concern is that Obama may sign a proposed Freedom of Choice Act that would invalidate any state laws that place restrictions on abortions. A senior Vatican official told Time magazine that would be the equivalent of a war.

And this is not the only area of potential clash. Just last month, the Vatican issued a wide-ranging document on bioethics that forcefully condemned not only embryonic stem cell research, but also artificial fertilization. And it declared that the morning-after pill falls within what it calls the sin of abortion.

Mindful of how controversial these issues are, the Vatican is also stressing that there are many other potential areas for collaboration. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi congratulated Obama, expressing the Holy See's desire to work together on issues such as fighting poverty and social inequality and on Iraq and the exodus of Christian minorities from the Middle East.

Vatican analysts say Pope Benedict is also well aware that the next American president enjoys unprecedented worldwide popularity. One church historian quipped this week, it's Obama who now holds the hope card. On January 20th he told me, people will be expecting the new American president to walk on water. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News Rome.

HANSEN: And you can read and respond to Sylvia's letters from Europe at our blog

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