VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI cut to the chase when he met President Obama at the Vatican July 10. He made a strong appeal to uphold the dignity of all human life.
And the Holy Father didn’t just make it plain from the outset that true progress of peoples depends on “the defense and promotion of life.”
According to papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, Benedict also unexpectedly gave Obama a copy of Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of the Person), the recent Vatican document explaining the Church’s position on abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and other life issues.
Pope Benedict also wanted it made known that Obama had told him of his commitment “to reduce the number of abortions and of his attention and respect for the positions of the Catholic Church,” according to Father Lombardi.
On greeting the president, who had come straight from L’Aquila, where the G8 Summit of world leaders had just ended, the Pope asked him how the meeting went. Obama said “it was very productive” and “some concrete things” were achieved. Soon after, the two leaders were left alone to talk in a meeting that lasted a little more than 40 minutes.
In a statement, the Vatican said that in the course of their “cordial exchanges,” the conversation turned “first of all to 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.”
In a briefing aboard Air Force One for reporters accompanying Obama to Accra, Ghana, Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said the president and the Pope had an extensive conversation about bioethics and abortion.
Obama said recently that he intends to introduce a “robust conscience clause” to protect Catholic doctors and others from having to act against their faith, but it remains to be seen just how far it will go (see story, page 3).
The two leaders also discussed immigration, paying particular attention “to the matter of reuniting families,” and matters of international politics, “especially in light of the outcome of the G8 Summit.” The conversation also turned to the peace process in the Middle East, “on which there was general agreement, and with other regional situations.”
Other issues such as “dialogue between cultures and religions, the global economic crisis and its ethical implications, food security, development aid especially for Africa and Latin America, and the problem of drug trafficking,” were also covered, the Vatican said. So was “the importance of educating young people everywhere in the value of tolerance.”
Father Lombardi said after the meeting that Dignitas Personae “can help the president better understand the Church’s position on these issues,” Reuters reported. “We know that this is a crucial theme for the Pope. There is no need to hide it. It [giving him the booklet] was an attempt to be clear; it was not polemical,” Father Lombardi said.
The White House said Obama wanted to work together on a range of issues with the Vatican.
“He is eager to find common ground on these issues and to work aggressively to do that,” said McDonough, according to Reuters. But he added that there may be some issues where they cannot come to agreement.
Father Lombardi said the Pope was “very impressed” by Obama and that the Holy Father was “extremely satisfied” with the conversation.
The meeting, which has been long anticipated, was a very gentlemanly and courteous encounter. Benedict XVI appeared happy to meet the president, telling his guest it had been “a great pleasure.” The president repeated several times to the Pope his gratitude for the meeting.
After their private discussions, the president, joined by first lady Michelle Obama, introduced his delegation to the Pope: his press spokesman, Robert Gibbs, special advisor David Axelrod and Julieta Valls, charges d’affairs of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.
When introducing McDonough, Obama pointed out to the Pope that McDonough’s brother is a priest. The Pope gave each of the delegation a rosary or pontifical medal.
In addition to Dignitas Personae, the Pope gave Obama an autographed copy of his latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth; Obama joked he would now have two things to read on the journey to Ghana, his next destination), and a framed mosaic of St. Peter’s Square and Basilica. “It’s beautiful,” said Obama. “We’ll have to find a place for it in our house.”
Obama gave the Pope a stole worn by St. John Neumann, a 19th-century Catholic priest who served as bishop of Philadelphia and is the patron saint of sick children and immigrants. He was canonized by Paul VI in 1977.
On leaving, the Pope thanked the president for coming. “I will pray for you,” he said, to which the president replied: “We are very grateful, and we look forward to a very strong relationship between our two countries. Thank you so much and God bless you.”
The party was then led through the ornate corridors of the Apostolic Palace by officials and Swiss Guards and given a small guided tour of the masterpieces lining the walls.
Obama was greeted on arrival by the head of the pontifical household, American Archbishop James Harvey, and, before meeting the Pope, he and his advisors had a 15-minute private talk with the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
The cardinal was joined by the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, and Msgr. Peter Wells, an American official in charge of overseeing relations with the United States at the Holy See.
As is often the case with these meetings, the images are positive ones. But a pertinent question mark remained after this audience was over: Will Obama heed the advice of the Pope, fulfill his pledge to reduce abortions, and uphold the dignity of all human life, however small?
Father Lombardi said the Vatican is very well aware of and supports the U.S. bishops in their efforts to try to convince the Obama administration to respect human life.
But, he said, the Vatican did not consult with the bishops in preparing for the visit, which the Pope had been looking forward to for months.
“The election of Obama had an impact of global importance,” and his policies have been known and followed “by everyone, including the Pope and the [Vatican] secretary of state,” Father Lombardi said. “I think here we are talking about a level of attention and knowledge that I would say is very broad.”
(CNS contributed to this report.)
writes from Rome.