July 17, 2009


The pope and the president search for a path to dialogue

As Catholics, and as Americans, we have reason to be grateful and full of hope when our spiritual and temporal leaders meet face to face as Pope Benedict XVI and President Barack Obama did at the Vatican City State on July 10.

We should be grateful because, unlike earlier periods in our nation’s history, the relationship between the United States of America and the Roman Catholic Church is strong, positive and, for the most part, focused on matters of genuine concern to all members of the world community.

We should be filled with hope because history shows that meetings such as these can make a difference—seeds can be planted, relationships are often strengthened and world leaders, if they are at all open, can come to a deeper understanding of each other’s convictions.

No one expects that these two men who are of different generations, and who come from markedly different backgrounds, would emerge from a 35-minute state visit having changed each other’s minds on issues that define who they are and what they stand for.

But as Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the pope’s spokesman, told reporters after the meeting, the two leaders spoke frankly “about questions which are in the interests of all and which constitute a great challenge for the future of every nation and for the true progress of peoples, such as the defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one’s conscience.”

According to the Vatican, “reference was also made to immigration with particular attention to the matter of reuniting families.”

Also as reported by the Associated Press, and confirmed by Catholic News Service, Pope Benedict did not hesitate to affirm two fundamental Church teachings: 1) that every human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception (hence the Church’s opposition to abortion and to artificial fertilization and stem-cell research); and 2) that responsible human procreation occurs in an act of love between a man and a woman in marriage.

According to a White House spokesman, the topics discussed by the president and the pope “included interfaith dialogue, a shared desire for Middle East peace, the president’s efforts to reach out to Muslims, and a mutual desire to fight militarism and extremism.”

These are not incidental matters or polite, diplomatic pleasantries. These are issues of vital concern to human beings everywhere. We should be grateful that the president and the pope can talk to one another about such things.

And, while it’s clear that there are serious differences between the teaching of the Catholic Church, which the Holy Father is bound to represent faithfully before God and man, and the stated beliefs and public record of the new American president, we American Catholics should be grateful that the conversation between Benedict XVI and Obama was not polemical but, in the words of the Holy See, “sought to find a path to dialogue.”

Is real dialogue possible between leaders who disagree on fundamental issues? We should all pray that the answer is yes. Otherwise, there would be no hope of finding common ground, of developing a better understanding or of changing our minds once our views have been formed.

As Catholics, we believe that openness to God’s truth liberates individuals and societies from the tyranny of false and dehumanizing ideologies.

As Americans, we regard freedom—grounded in our inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—as our most precious possession.

These are not mutually exclusive points of view—far from it. There is common ground here, and a path to authentic dialogue, if only we will work for it as openly and honestly as human beings can (with the help of God’s grace).

Pope Benedict was right to welcome Obama on behalf of the universal Church. He was also right to share with him a copy of the document “Dignitatis Personae” (“The Dignity of a Person”) in an effort to communicate clearly and objectively our Church’s position on these critically important issues.

Obama was right to seek this meeting with the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church and to accept graciously (and promise to read!) the Vatican document on bioethics.

The pope told Father Lombardi after the meeting that he believes Obama “listened carefully,” and that he “explicitly expressed his commitment to reducing the number of abortions.”

As Catholics, and as Americans, we should be grateful for this brief but very significant exchange between our president and our pope.

We should not be naïve about this meeting or its implications for the public policy issues discussed. But we can, and should, be people of hope.

We should trust that God’s grace, which can do far more than any president or pope, will inspire all our spiritual and temporal leaders to seek the truth in love and to do whatever is humanly possible to build a world community that truly serves the dignity of every human person.

—Daniel Conway

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