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The Pope and the President: Many Similar Outlooks but Very Different Roles

July 10, 2009

Washington DC – Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, issued the following statement about the meeting today between President Barack Obama and Pope Benedict XVI in Rome.

“In the last few weeks, many have speculated about the first meeting between President Barack Obama and Pope Benedict XVI. We at Catholics for Choice have repeatedly been asked about our take on this meeting. Certainly, for US Catholics it is an exciting moment to see our pope and our president meet.

“It is worth noting, however, that earlier this week, in his social encyclical ‘Caritas in Veritate,’ Pope Benedict claimed that the church does not “interfere in any way in the politics of States.” These words are especially pertinent for Friday’s meeting.

“While both men are world leaders, the pope and the president maintain distinctly different roles as a religious leader and a political leader, respectively. We must be clear that the pope does not command the same type of global responsibility as a member of the Group of Eight, such as the United States, and to expect G8-type political outcomes from this meeting would be unrealistic and wrong.

“Although Pope Benedict and President Obama play different roles in the world, there are undoubtedly valuable issues that the two men can and should discuss. Taking even a quick look at this week’s encyclical, one will find many examples of the similar outlooks the two leaders share on issues pertaining to poverty, the rights of immigrants and the benefits of scientific progress. Both men strive for an end to war and hunger. Both aim to safeguard the environment and protect religious freedoms. The pope may have the moral stature to promote these causes but the president has the political power to effect change at a policy level.

“The common views the pope and president share affect the lives of people in the US and around the world, especially those living in poverty. As such, it would be beneficial for them to discuss these issues. With several wars on and financial crises overwhelming us, it is always positive when people of good will and good intent can agree, discuss and inspire one another to work even harder to better our world.

“At their meeting, President Obama certainly need not lecture the pope about the inner workings of the Catholic church. It is a widely known fact that Catholics the world over disagree with the dictates of the Vatican on issues pertaining to sexual and reproductive health and rights. Catholics must let the pope and other members of the church hierarchy know that the Vatican is out of touch, the teachings are flawed and that people suffer as a result. That message need not come from President Obama; rather, it is up to Catholics to raise these concerns.

“In the same vein, Pope Benedict should not lecture the president about the needs of people in the US. This nation was founded by those who suffered from religious persecution and fled to America to be free to practice religion as they saw fit. It is therefore no surprise that the separation of church and state was and continues to be a cornerstone of US democracy. Politics should not interfere with religion nor should religion interfere with politics. People of every religion and no religion should be equally represented; freedom of religion and freedom from religion must be guaranteed. With this in mind, the pope should not feel the need to lecture President Obama on matters of internal US policy.

“However, recent evidence suggests that the pope’s claims that church does not “interfere in any way in the politics of States” are more than a little disingenuous.

“In the United States alone, we have several examples. Take, for instance, when the US bishops successfully lobbied to strip life-saving family planning measures from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) bill. Moreover, the bishops continue to lobby for conscience clauses (or, more correctly, refusal clauses) that protect entire institutions-not individuals-and exclude abortion and contraception from healthcare reform. Both measures would limit access to vital reproductive healthcare services. These are all classic examples of how the pope, through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, interferes in US politics.

“When Pope Benedict and President Obama meet, the president should not tell the pope how to run his church nor should the pope tell the president how to run his country. In reality, this meeting is more about symbolism and respect for each other and the institutions they represent than anything else. As Pope Benedict is a religious leader and does not take on the responsibilities that President Obama has as a political leader, we cannot and should not expect any substantial outcomes. However, the two men can definitely discuss what they agree on and inspire one another to move forward doing good work.”

Post-Meeting Update

The meeting today between Pope Benedict XVI and President Obama was, by all accounts, cordial, despite the fact that the two men discussed many issues, some of which they agree about, others not.

According to the Vatican’s chief spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, their conversation started with “the defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one’s conscience,” and also encompassed a host of other topics including the Middle East peace process, the economic crisis, food security and immigration.

They are both men of principle who are convinced that the policies they support are the correct ones. While there are many issues on which they agree, it is refreshing to see that it is possible to have discussions about abortion and stem-cell research that do not descend into shrill protests.  The pope and the president’s cordial meeting should be an example to the loud minority that opposed the very idea of Obama’s presence at the University of Notre Dame in the US earlier this year.

It is also very refreshing to hear that the pope acknowledged the importance of conscience in making decisions that have ethical and moral consequences. Catholic teachings place a high value on an individual’s conscience, and we hope that the reference to this teaching reminds the pope, the president and everybody else to respect the conscientious decisions of others.