The Pope and the President

The Knights of Columbus’ Supreme knight, Carl Anderson, weighs in on President Obama’s meeting with Pope Benedict July 10.

Carl Anderson heads one of the largest lay Catholic organizations in the world.

Anderson is supreme knight of the 1.75 million-member Knights of Columbus. He was also once a personal assistant to President Ronald Reagan and is a consultor to the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Pontifical Councils for the Family and Justice and Peace.

He spoke to Register correspondent Edward Pentin June 30 in Rome about his hopes and expectations for President Obama’s first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI on July 10.

What are your hopes for President Obama’s meeting with the Pope?

Certainly, there are great expectations. Every circumstance in which he [Obama] finds himself, the expectations are huge. The diplomatic relationship between the Vatican and the U.S. is hugely important, obviously. The U.S. is the economic and military superpower, and you have the Vatican as really the global voice of conscience for a billion people. One out of four Americans is Catholic, so it’s a very important relationship both ways. I think that the Vatican has already signaled that it wishes to work with the president on some of these important challenges, like the economy, peace in the Middle East and global poverty. So I think there’s a possibility for great good to come out of the meeting. The president signaled in his speech at Notre Dame what he described as “irreconcilable differences.” It’s unfortunate that there are.

The White House’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said the Pope and Obama will discuss “their shared belief in the dignity of all people.” Yet Obama clearly doesn’t believe in the dignity of the unborn, so how can this be true?

If what’s in Corriere della Sera is accurate, he [the Pope] will say that true development is not possible without an openness to life. So there is a way in which both the president’s and the Pope’s view of human dignity coincide, but there’s also an area in which they are irreconcilably different, so we just have to see. I think that will be a consistent challenge for the president, because if we look at the previous president, there was agreement on those fundamental questions of human dignity. There was disagreement on pragmatic and prudential matters in which the Church historically has said reasonable men can apply their prudence or practical reasoning differently, but not so on questions like abortion. So it’s a more difficult relationship today, but still a very important relationship.

But can there really be effective cooperation on those matters where there is commonality in view of the president’s views on abortion? Doesn’t it compromise the relationship in some way?

To some extent, yes, because there is a view of international development which has many adherents in the U.S. and in the current administration — which is that population control is absolutely essential for economic development. Obviously, the contrary view would be held by the Vatican. So while one would hope you could get agreement on questions of economic development internationally, for part of it you’d still have this irreconcilable difference which would have deep, practical consequences.

Do you think it confuses the faithful if the Vatican does cooperate in a big way with this administration? Doesn’t it give off a signal that perhaps abortion is not so important?

That’s certainly an important question. People have to look at it very carefully. There is always a domestic political benefit to such a meeting, but it’s always a mistake to try to overreach the political benefit of it. I think what is fundamental to a democracy is that you can work with somebody you may not have voted for. So, where there are great challenges, you would expect people would work together to try to solve them, but that doesn’t mean that at the end of the day there’s essential agreement on important fundamental issues. So it’s a real question whether people will interpret in a more enthusiastic way the meeting between the president and the Pope.

A similar problem was encountered recently when L’Osservatore Romano gave a positive assessment of Obama’s first days in office. What is your view of that?

One of the difficulties with a newspaper like L’Osservatore Romano is that it’s very difficult to speak in a universal language that’s understood as intended. In different cultures, words may drop into a different political and cultural context and therefore take on a slightly different meaning. That’s something else that has to be very carefully thought about.

Overall, you’re reasonably hopeful about the U.S.-Holy See relationship?

The relationship is very important, so it has to be undertaken realistically — and it has to be undertaken without inflated expectations.

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.

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