This has been a tough stretch for conservative Christians in America, especially of the Catholic variety.
Notre Dame welcomed Barack Obama at commencement with open arms and an honorary degree after a number of bishops and conservative activists decreed that the nation's preeminent Catholic university had forfeited its bona fides with the invitation. The president has said that the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) is not a priority, promised that "robust" conscience protections for health care workers are coming, and pushed for a package of abortion-reduction legislation that should be unveiled by summer's end.
And just this week, Pope Benedict XVI published an encyclical -- an authoritative teaching document -- on social justice that goes further than Obama ever would in castigating free-market economics and proposing vigorous oversight with "real teeth," and even international regulation of the global economy.
Now, fresh off his appearance at the G8 Summit in nearby L'Aquila, Obama is to buzz over to the Apostolic Palace for a sit-down with the pontiff, who upended quasi-sacred papal protocol by making room for the meeting late on Friday afternoon and delaying his summer exit to his hilltop villa at Castelgandolfo. (Popes always receive visitors in audience in the morning, and yes, such an accommodation is a big deal in the pontifical cosmos.)
Perhaps the only good news for conservatives was White House spokesman Robert Gibbs' preemptive declaration
that Obama would not be joining a church in Italy during his visit. Gibbs was joking of course, but not everyone is laughing.
So can a photo-op at the Vatican change the political dynamic in Washington?
Generally speaking, that would be a stretch. But in reality there's much more going on than a friendly handshake. Ever since Obama was elected, in fact, church officials in Rome have signaled a much greater and much more public openness to Obama than church leaders in the United States. Indeed, Obama received a telegram of congratulations from Benedict on the day of his election -- "historic," the pope called it -- and the two men later chatted by phone. The Vatican daily, L'Osservatore Romano, has been almost glowing in its coverage of Obama, especially compared to the dim view of Catholic theocons, some of whom have lobbied for the L'Osservatore editor to find a new job.
Such an argument would be tougher to make against Cardinal Georges Cottier, who for years was the official theologian to the papal household, meaning he vetted all papal pronouncements for orthodoxy. In a lengthy essay in a prominent Italian Catholic periodical, "30 Giorni," Cardinal Cottier
rejects the talking point of Obama as "pro-abortion" and praises his "humble realism" and the president's apparent reflection of the thinking of Saint Thomas Aquinas. High praise indeed. Or, as veteran Vatican-watcher Sandro Magister put it: "Cardinal Cottier seems almost to exalt Obama as a new Constantine, the head of a modern empire that is also generous toward the Church."
For his part, Obama has been diligent in courting the Catholic vote, and there appears to be more than political maneuvering at work. Obama knows how to "talk Catholic," in the words of more than one participant at last week's White House meeting between Obama and a select group of Catholic journos from across the spectrum. At that meeting he cited the late Chicago cardinal, Joseph Bernardin, as an inspiration and he spoke easily about Bernadin's "seamless garment" approach to pro-life and social justice issues. He can talk theology and original sin (as he did at Notre Dame) and he knows that you address the pope as "Your Holiness" -- something it took George W. Bush a while to learn. (At a 2007 meeting with Benedict
, President Bush made aides wince by repeatedly referring to the pope as "sir."
Obama's approach to international affairs has also been a profound relief to Vatican officials, as well as church leaders around the world. (One top Latin American prelate I spoke with on the eve of the election kept peppering me for polling updates, seeking assurance that McCain could not win.) As E.J. Dionne writes in The Washington Post,
"the pope and many of his advisers also see Obama as a potential ally on such questions as development in the Third World, their shared approach to a quest for peace in the Middle East and the opening of a dialogue with Islam." You can include climate change, immigration, and human rights, too.
Also boosting Obama's standing has been the miscalculation of many Catholic conservatives and bishops whose virulent rhetoric against the president reached a peak ahead of Obama's May 17 appearance at Notre Dame. Yet the commencement wound up as a triumph for the president, the university, and the majority of Catholics who supported the appearance. And now the pope himself is going to give Obama another platform -- at the heart of Catholicism itself.
Certainly the two men have disagreements, most notably on whether abortion should be legal. (Obama is not likely to differ with the pope much on gay marriage, either, at least in principle.) But they have agreed to disagree in previous communications, and Benedict -- as previous popes -- has made it a policy to hold cordial, even warm talks with leaders with whom he disagrees on some issues. (Benedict, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, sharply opposed Bush's Iraq invasion, but later let bygones be bygones.) Catholic conservatives should have known this would be the case, and by ignoring the inevitability of a meeting like the one on Friday they, in a sense, caught themselves in a political trap of their own making.
The upshot is that Benedict's meeting with Obama will at the very least detoxify the president in the minds of American Catholics (and others), and may do a good deal more. Moreover, it will further erode the credibility of the conservatives whose harsh rhetoric on Obama will now require a sort of cognitive dissonance to reconcile with the facts on the ground, or at least in Rome.
Already some Catholic leaders seem to be striking a different tone with Obama. New York's new archbishop, Timothy Dolan, is a champion of engagement over public confrontation and he is emerging as a leading voice in the hierarchy. Dolan recently said that Catholics "need to give (Obama) his due." The president, he told Religion News Service, "has inspired a sense of hope. He does seem to be tackling problems such as health care and the economy with a vigor that we find laudable, and he does seem to have a refreshing view on issues of international concern."
It has been decades since the bishops were able to deliver votes at the ballot box, and in these recent years of scandal their backing could be seen as a hindrance as much as a help. But an Obama administration that can work with the Catholic Church would be a watershed change from recent years as well. And with Catholics -- the nation's largest single religious voting bloc -- also representing the largest prize of swing voters, a small shift in perceptions could go a long way on Election Day.
If that's case, conservatives may have themselves to blame.