How Meeting the Pope Can Change Obama's Rocky Catholic Narrative

Obama's first sit-down with the pope may change the perception of his relationship with the church.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Until now, President Obama's relationship with the Roman Catholic Church has not appeared to be a very happy one.

It's hard to recall another time when as many U.S. bishops publicly denounced a domestic political development as spoke out against Obama's May appearance at the University of Notre Dame.

And to the extent that the American Catholic hierarchy has weighed in on the Obama administration, it has been mostly critical. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops frowned on Obama's expansion of federally supported embryonic stem cell research and has mounted a full-blown campaign to oppose the Freedom of Choice Act, which Obama supported during the campaign but has since backed away from.

But Obama's inaugural meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome tomorrow could change the narrative of his rocky relations with the Catholic Church. "Notre Dame generated some sense that this was a difficult, hostile relationship," says Catholic University of America President David O'Connell. "You're not going to get that in Rome. You're going to find a much more warm and eager meeting."

The simple fact that the meeting is happening is a high-visibility reminder that the president and the church are hardly mortal enemies. "People who were saying after Notre Dame that Obama can't come to my university or Catholic organization, are going to say, 'If he's good enough for the pope, he's good enough for us,' " says O'Connell.

Though Obama won the vote of Catholics in last year's election, doubling support from conservative Catholics over John Kerry in 2004, the steady drumbeat of criticism from some U.S. bishops threatens to dampen Catholic enthusiasm for the president.

But tomorrow's meeting, and expected public comments from the president and the pope, will most likely spotlight areas of agreement between the administration and the Vatican on issues like foreign policy, aiding the Third World, and combating climate change. A papal encyclical released earlier this week revealed overlap between Benedict and Obama on social justice issues.

"George Bush did hold the Catholic position on abortion, but there are a lot of things about U.S. policy that the Vatican has been very unhappy about in the last eight years," says Mathew Schmalz, a Vatican expert at the College of the Holy Cross. "Benedict will emphasize the ideals of economic justice and international negotiations over use of force."

In Obama's first six months in office, the Vatican has taken a friendly tone toward him. Benedict broke with Vatican protocol by calling to congratulate Obama after he won the election, as opposed to waiting for his inauguration. During the Notre Dame flap, the Vatican kept quiet. And the Vatican newspaper has gone so far as to defend Obama against attacks from abortion-rights opponents, with its editor recently asserting that "Obama is not a pro-abortion president."

If Obama will be tending to his image back home in meeting with the pope, Benedict will be aware of operating on a global stage. "The greatest growth of Catholicism is in the Third World, where Obama is exceedingly popular," says Schmalz. "Benedict will be sensitive to that . . . . The first thing he might do is emphasize the historic nature of Obama's election as the first black president of the United States."

Of course, there is also potential for Obama's domestic friction with the Catholic Church to surface in Rome. After George W. Bush's first meeting with Pope John Paul II in 2001, the pope criticized Bush's support for federally funding some embryonic stem cell research. "The media coverage of the event was all about that sentence," says Deal Hudson, a Catholic Bush adviser who accompanied him on the trip. "It was used to portray the meeting as a negative experience with the president."

"So what the pope says in way of formal comments will be terribly important," Hudson says.

A conservative activist who runs the website InsideCatholic, Hudson hopes the pope uses his public appearance with a pro-abortion-rights president to reinforce the church's antiabortion stand. But, he says, the pope's comments might also portray Obama in a more positive light. "When it comes to a sense of America's having a big stick in the world and knocking everybody into line, I think Benedict is closer to Obama's attitude on that" than he was to Bush's, Hudson says.

With a relatively brief meeting expected, no one is anticipating major breakthroughs tomorrow. "People are making much more out of this than needs to be made," says Catholic University's O'Connell. "This is a standard meeting that the Holy Father gives a head of state, and I don't think it's going to be some great, earthshaking event. It's going to be a gracious and courteous time together."

But given the domestic disturbances between Obama and the Catholic Church, graciousness and courtesy would mark a major change of course.

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