Body language says a lot about a world leader’s audience with the Pope. During his 2007
visit to Pope Benedict XVI’s private library, President George W. Bush sat down across
the desk from the Pontiff as if he had just landed on his own porch in
Crawford, Texas: leaning back in the velvet chair, legs crossed, apparently eager
to show his command of the situation.
When President Barack Obama sat down in that same spot on Friday, July 10, for his first
papal meeting, his posture was altogether different. Leaning forward from the front
edge of the chair, his shoulders slightly hunched, his crossed hands resting
softly on the edge of the Pope’s desk, the leader of the free world looked
more like a schoolboy who’d arrived to humbly plead his case to the
principal. “You must be used to getting your picture taken,” Obama commented to the Pope as
a scrum of photographers clicked away, then continued, “I’m still getting used to it.”
The potential for global symbolism abounds whenever an American President
meets the Roman Pontiff, and the first-ever encounter between the
47-year-old Obama and the 82-year-old Benedict offered a vivid snapshot of how the
change of the guard in Washington looks on the world stage.
Of course the differences are not just in the humble body language but in
hard policy. To a large degree, the deck has flipped from the Bush era: the
Obama Administration’s focus on dialogue-centric, multilateral foreign policy is to the Vatican’s
liking, while its support of abortion rights and stem-cell research are a
deep worry after the Pope’s having had an ally on bioethics in the White House for eight years.
And during the oddly scheduled Friday afternoon meeting, crammed between the end
of the Group of 8 meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, and Obama’s departure for
Ghana, the Pope had no intention of papering over differences on what the Vatican
calls “life” issues, such as abortion and euthanasia. While reporters and photographers waited in a narrow Vatican corridor
outside the library during the private audience, the Pope’s personal secretary, Monsignor
Georg Ganswein, disclosed that there was one item added to the list of
gifts for Obama: “Dignitas Personae” , a Vatican
document released in December that lays out its latest stance on biomedical
ethics. “It can help the President better understand the position of the
Catholic Church,” said Ganswein.
When the Pope presented him with the light green softcover document after their 35-minute closed-door meeting, Obama quickly responded, “Yes, this is what
we had talked about.” And like that humble schoolboy, the President assured
the Pope he would read it on the flight to Ghana.
Patrick Whelan, head of the Catholic Democrats organization in Boston,
believes that the Pope’s particular emphasis on bioethics may have been due
to the recent uproar in the U.S. Catholic Church over the President’s invitation to give
the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. Some Catholic
bishops opposed to the invitation because of Obama’s stance on abortion
and other ethical issues had hoped in vain that the Vatican would join the fray.
“There was a feeling that [the Pope] didn’t back them up over Notre Dame,”
said Whelan. “He wanted to show them that he wouldn’t shy away from these issues
in front of Obama.”
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters after the
audience that it was important for the Pope to be clear about the Church’s stance on
ethical issues. “It would be ambiguous to hide or minimize what we believe,” he said. “It’s not meant to be divisive or polemical.” Lombardi added that the
Pope told him that Obama “explicitly expressed his commitment to reducing the
numbers of abortions and to listen to the Church’s concerns on moral
Father Lombardi said the Pope seemed “extremely satisfied” with the meeting
and was “well impressed” with Obama, who was “attentive and ready to
listen.” White House officials said the President hand-delivered a
letter to the Pope from Senator Edward Kennedy, who’s suffering from an
incurable brain tumor, and Obama asked for prayers for the brother of the
only Catholic President in American history.
Benedict, who doesn’t have the same instincts in world diplomacy as Pope
John Paul II and has had some notable verbal missteps, has a new opportunity with a like-minded Obama Administration to
have more of a say on a vast array of foreign policy challenges. Among other issues touched upon
was the West’s relations with Islam, and the White House noted that they
spoke about Obama’s recent speech in Cairo directed at the Muslim world.
Still, beyond the private talk, Obama’s visit to the Vatican in which
the President’s wife and daughters also got a private tour of St. Peter’s
Basilica and the Sistine Chapel is one of the key encounters of his first year in
office. It gives him the chance not only to solidify support from U.S.
Catholic voters at home but also to spread his new American gospel to the
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