Obama's First Meeting With Pope Could Yield Economic Common Ground

President Obama is scheduled to meet with Pope Benedict in Italy next month.


By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

It's official: President Obama will have his first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI on July 10, while in Italy attending a G8 summit. While Obama's May appearance at the University of Notre Dame has strained his relationship with many U.S. bishops, Rome has been more conciliatory toward his administration.

For Obama, his first papal sit-down probably couldn't have been better timed; it comes shortly after the long-scheduled release of Benedict's encyclical "Caritas in Veritate" (Charity in Truth), which he says will focus on "the extensive issue of the economy and labor." Encyclicals are letters from the pope to the Roman Catholic hierarchy on key church matters.

If Benedict's encyclical argues that moral shortcomings precipitated the world economic crisis, as seems likely to be the case, it could line up with Obama's own interpretation of the recession. The president outlined his views on how the abrogation of values led to the financial crisis in his commencement address at Arizona State University:

The economy remains in the midst of a historic recession, the result, in part, of greed and irresponsibility that rippled out from Wall Street and Washington, as we spent beyond our means and failed to make hard choices. . . .

In the face of these challenges, it may be tempting to fall back on the formulas for success that have dominated these recent years. Many of you have been taught to chase after the usual brass rings: being on this "who's who" list or that top 100 list; how much money you make and how big your corner office is; whether you have a fancy enough title or a nice enough car.

You can take that road—and it may work for some of you. But at this difficult time, let me suggest that such an approach won't get you where you want to go; that in fact, the elevation of appearance over substance, celebrity over character, short-term gain over lasting achievement is precisely what your generation needs to help end.

I want to highlight two main problems with that old approach. First, it distracts you from what is truly important, and may lead you to compromise your values, principles and commitments. Think about it. . . . It was in pursuit of gaudy short-term profits, and the bonuses that come with them, that so many folks lost their way on Wall Street.

The leaders we revere, the businesses that last—they are not the result of narrow pursuit of popularity or personal advancement, but of devotion to some bigger purpose—the preservation of the Union or the determination to lift a country out of depression; the creation of a quality product or a commitment to your customers, your workers, your shareholders and your community.

The trappings of success may be a by-product of this larger mission, but they can't be the central thing. Just ask Bernie Madoff.

The second problem with the old approach is that a relentless focus on the outward markers of success all too often leads to complacency. We too often let them serve as indications that we're doing well, even though something inside us tells us that we're not doing our best; that we are shrinking from, rather than rising to, the challenges of the age.

And in his economic speech at Georgetown University, Obama invoked the Bible in calling for reform of the economic system:

There's a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men.

The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was soon destroyed when a storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when "the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock." "It was founded upon a rock."

We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity: a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.

Up until now, the news media's focus on Obama's relationship with the Roman Catholic Church has revolved around the abortion issue. But headlines out of the president's first meeting with the pope may be about economic common ground.