Advice to President-Elect Obama: Cultivate the Holy See as an Ally
Joseph Wood, a former White House official who has worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs, writes at The Catholic Thing:
... As John Allen of The National Catholic Reporter has observed, a strong relationship between the Holy See and the United States would help both parties. Domestically, it would reassure those who voted for Obama despite questions about where he stands on traditional beliefs and institutions of the West. It would be popular among Americans who see Pope Benedict XVI as a spiritual leader, both in the Church and beyond. It would help continue cooperation on aiding the poorest of the poor, begun with President Bush’s dramatic increases in assistance to Africa, and it would reinforce the relationship between the world’s largest donor nation and the world’s largest dispenser of assistance. It could ease friction on some of the difficult policy choices the next administration may have to make, such as ending Iran’s nuclear program. And a visibly respectful relationship with the Vatican would aid in regaining the moral stature that Obama and others feel America has lost.
To gain the Vatican as an ally in some cases and a more amiable opponent in others, the president-elect should see Pope Benedict XVI when he is in Italy for the G-8 conference in 2009, or possibly sooner, after the NATO summit in April. He would arrive with several positive bases for a conversation: his own opposition to the war in Iraq tracks with that of the Vatican (although most in the Curia now seem to see the dangers of a precipitous withdrawal), and his emphasis on dialogue with adversaries is aligned with many statements by this pope and his predecessor.
To prepare for such a meeting, the new president should do two things. First, he should read Pope Benedict’s address to the United Nations on human rights and the intellectual and spiritual foundations thereof. The advancement of human rights, including religious liberty, as a good based on a universal morality, has the potential to link the United States and the Vatican in an enduring way like no other issue. Second, he should postpone major revisions to American social policy, especially on abortion, until he has had this meeting and heard from this pope. This would demonstrate openness to the Church as an institution on the public question it considers most urgent, and it would demonstrate at home that President Obama in power, as distinct from candidate Obama, is listening beyond the narrow confines of the Democratic Party’s left wing where he turned for his support early on.
For his part, the pope has reached out with a warm and positive post-election message to the president-elect. But the Vatican must hold firm, in public and in private, on the issues of the greatest moment and where the differences are widest. This assertion of truth is one of the best hopes for those Americans who fear a social agenda in the next four years that would enforce a highly positivist, and relativist, combination of secular social science and leftist shibboleth.