Charity in Truth
The Vatican, the United States, and the issues, after the week that was.


George Weigel

Now that was a week: a new social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), from Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday; a meeting between the pope and Pres. Barack Obama on Friday; heavy-duty polemics on Wednesday and Thursday, largely reflective of the determination of certain Catholic parties in the United States to turn the encyclical into a pontifical endorsement of Obamanomics, Obamacare, etc., in anticipation of the Vatican summit.

The high, or low, point in the exchange of counter-battery fire in the blogosphere may have come Thursday, when former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend issued a broadside arguing that President Obama better understood and reflected Catholic life in the United States than did the 265th Bishop of Rome — which rather took Obamaphile spin to new heights (or depths). But, then, nothing was surprising after several days of high-voltage rhetoric in defense of Caritas in Veritate from people who would rather have had a barbed-wire colonoscopy than see Joseph Ratzinger elected pope back in 2005. There are many ironies in the fire, indeed.

Where do things stand, after the week that was?

The president took some reading material on the plane from Rome to Ghana — Caritas in Veritate, and a recent Vatican instruction on bioethical issues, Dignitas Personae (“The Dignity of the Person”), both of which were given him by Benedict XVI during their meeting. The president’s remarkable speech in Ghana, doubtless prepared well in advance, nonetheless touched one theme in Caritas in Veritate — that corrupt and unresponsive governments, not a lack of foreign aid, were the cause of many Third World economic problems. One may doubt, however, whether there will by any such symmetry forthcoming from the administration on the issues discussed in Dignitas Personae, which rejects such administration trademarks as embryo-destructive stem-cell research. Obama also pledged to Benedict that he would do everything he could to lower the incidence of abortion in America (and, presumably, elsewhere); one wonders how this struck his State Department (back in the business of promoting abortion-on-demand at the U.N.) and his political ground troops at NARAL and other pro-abortion organizations across the United States.

The Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, headlined the Benedict-Obama meeting as a “cordial” one. Well, of course it was. Benedict XVI is not a man naturally given to shouting, the president was clearly determined to make a good impression, and the circumstances were not quite like 1983, when Pope John Paul II began a discussion with Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski — in a Poland still under martial law — by commenting that the entire country seemed to be “one great concentration camp.” Yet the very fact that the pope decided to give Obama Dignitas Personae suggests that Benedict knows precisely where the deepest fault line between the U.S. administration and the Holy See is to be found. One hopes that the president, should he read Dignitas Personae closely, learns that the Catholic approach to these matters is not a matter of “belief” or “opinion,” as Obama persistently says, but of moral conviction based on first principles of justice that everyone can know by reason.

A few days before the Vatican summit, E. J. Dionne Jr. reported in his Washington Post column that the papal nuncio in Washington had warned the bishops of the United States against too much criticism of the Obama administration, lest they appear too partisan. If that was in fact said in those precise terms, then the Vatican’s mission in Obama’s Washington seems not to have grasped the central fact about the administration and the Catholic Church in the United States — that the president, in his Notre Dame commencement speech and in his interview with seven religion reporters on July 2, has subtly but unmistakably decided to wrestle with the Catholic bishops of the U.S. over the definition of the Catholic “brand” in America.

At Notre Dame, Obama suggested that the real Catholics, the genuine Catholics, were those Catholics who welcomed his appearance as commencement speaker at the symbolic center of U.S. Catholic intellectual life. The necessary corollary to this assertion, of course, is that the not-so-real Catholics were those like Bishop John D’Arcy of Ft. Wayne-South Bend, who opposed the university’s giving an honorary doctorate of laws to a longtime supporter of Roe v. Wade — not to mention the more than 80 bishops who publicly supported D’Arcy in his brave stand. Then, in his pre-papal summit interview with reporters largely drawn from the Catholic press, Obama spoke (as he also had at Notre Dame) of how the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago had instilled in a young South Side social worker and future president a commitment to “common ground” approaches to public policy — yet another signal that the president proposed to be a player in the internal Catholic debate over the nature of Catholic identity and what that identity requires of Catholic institutions.