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July 7, 2009

New papal encyclical calls on Obama and world leaders to use globalization and markets for the common good

ROME, 7 July 2009--Cardinal Renato Martino and Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, the leaders of the Pontifical Council for Justice & Peace, led a presentation here this morning in Vatican City on the new papal encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. This is the third of Pope Benedict XVI's substantial directives on faith and the Church, and it covered a sweeping range of issues in its 43-pages of text.

Pope Benedict speaks in the encyclical about certain truths being objective, and capable of being a unifying force for all people. He then embarks on the centrality to the Christian faith of giving one's self to the wellbeing of others. The centerpiece of the document was the argument that there is nothing fanciful or impractical about Christ's call for charity to one another. Providing workers with dignified work leads to greater productivity. Finding alternatives to violence in conflict resolution leads to greater good for all parties. Far from being pie-in-the-sky amidst all the difficulties of the modern world, Christ's call to love one another is a practical prescription for solving our many problems.

The document repeatedly praised Pope Paul VI in a ringing endorsement of the legacy of Vatican II, saying, "Justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it... charity demands justice: recognition and respect for the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples." He described Pope Paul's encyclical Populorum Proggessio as "the Rerum Novarum of the modern world," in reference to the 1891 encyclical that is generally thought to be the foundation for modern Catholic Social Teaching. Pope Benedict spoke in language that was thoroughly modern, using terms like "food security," the "moral underdevelopment" brought on by excessive materialism, and "intergenerational justice." He spoke unequivocally in support of the rights of workers to organize.

One of the most poignant references was to Pope Paul's Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, insisting that the heart of evangelization in the world is personal example (ie, actions speak louder than words.) At one point, he says sweepingly, "Every economic decision has a moral consequence." Then citing Populorum Progressio, he argued that "In the design of God, every man is called upon to develop and fulfill himself, for every life is a vocation." He added that, "This is what gives legitimacy to the Church's involvement in the whole question of development. If development were concerned with merely technical aspects of human life, and not with the meaning of man's pilgrimage through history in company with his fellow human beings, nor with identifying the goal of that journey, then the Church would not be entitled to speak on it."

"Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty." He went on to make specific reference to "the unregulated exploitation of the earth's resources" as a destructive factor in human development.

There were a number of surprises in the encyclical. While the focus of the work was the world economic crisis, he repeatedly emphasized that globalization and markets were not the problem, but rather the fault lies with how they have been used. He said "The world's wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities are on the increase. The scandal of glaring inequalities continues." He spoke about the right to life as one that is foundational, but also much broader than some would define it--including a right to adequate water and food. A brief section on population growth spoke out against governments engaging in "mandatory birth control" and said that "sex education [cannot] be reduced to technical instruction" to prevent disease or pregnancy." But there was no criticism of health education that includes those topics. There was an unequivocal condemnation of fundamentalism and its use of religion to reject progress in the world. The role of the Church, he said, is to help us on our "pilgrimage through history," and there was a resonance in the document that made one proud to be a Catholic.

Reporters asked questions for an hour, often pressing the respondents about the clear connection between the pope's call for an economic system that serves the common good, and the impending discussions starting tomorrow that will bring President Obama to attend the G8 Economic Summit south of here in the earthquake-ravaged region of L'Aquila Italy.

July 10, 2009

President and Pope meet for the first time, and a critical dialogue is begun

ROME--10 Jul 2009--President Obama and his family came to the Vatican this afternoon, and the reaction here in Rome was something approaching euphoria. Of course the crowds outside St Peter's Square, held back by police, cheered him both on the way in and the way out. But the briefing in the Vatican Press Center afterward took as one of it's themes the sense of joy that many inside the Vatican. It sounded, with my limited Italian, as if most everyone was impressed with President Obama, with positive comments coming from both the curia and the household staff.

At the briefing for reporters following the meeting in the apostolic palace, the papal spokesman said, "President Obama told the pope of his commitment to reduce the number of abortions and of his respect for the positions of the Church."

The Vatican communique was very judicious in its use of language, beginning with its statement that the conversation was "cordial." I thought it was interesting they put "the defence and promotion of life" on par with "the right to abide by one's conscience." I think the authors must have appreciated the double meaning here, coming on the heels of an encyclical praising the legacy of Vatican II, which placed new emphasis on the primacy of conscience. The latter statement could have represented a vote in favor of conscience rights for healthcare providers, but I get the feeling that that is an issue very narrowly in the US news and wouldn't mean very much to most people around the world reading about this meeting.

A separate paragraph was devoted to immigration, perhaps in part because so many US bishops have taken up the mantle of this cause and it is a shared objective with the administration.

I thought it was interesting too that the Vatican statement made a point of emphasizing their agreement on Middle East peace, without pointing out any areas of disagreement. I was surprised that no specific mention was made of the environment, which made me think that the broader reference to "questions which are in the interests of all and which constitute a great challenge for the ffuture of every nation and for the true progress of peoples" was intended to include a whole range of the most compelling issues--war, environment, and the common ground on unintended pregnancy.

Overall, I think this meeting affirmed a mutual respect between these two leaders, a willingness to work together in a pragmatic way, and an appreciation that the differences between the Church and the Obama administration are dwarfed by the number of compelling issues for which they share a high level of concern.

July 15, 2009

Pope greets Hope, and a new era is launched in relations between Washington and the Vatican

Catholic Democrats launched a national campaign in May, garnering thousands of signatures from more than 40 countries in support of President Obama's meeting with Pope Benedict XVI on July 11, 2009. The meeting came on the heels of the G8 Economic Summit, in an earthquake-ravaged region of Italy, serving to emphasize that the needs of people were foremost in the minds of the world leaders who were all grappling with the economic crisis back home.

As president of Catholic Democrats, I had an opportunity to travel to the Vatican for President Obama's visit, and joined other bloggers and reporters in the Vatican press center for the release of the papal encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, on July 8. One Jesuit analysis of the document called it "a magnificent gift to the world from Catholic Social Teaching." This document, long in preparation, dealt head-on with the issue of a world economy that often leaves most of the people behind. It emphasized a seamlessness of life issues and economic concerns, and dwelt on the inter-relatedness of economies that spend large amounts on military spending and the lack of attention to human needs.

In my conversations with Vatican officials and reporters, it became clear that there was a real enthusiasm for the message of President Obama--that traditional enemies need to be talking, that the era of unrestrained spending on nuclear weapons should come to an end, that global warming poses an immense threat to developing countries, and that the world recession was having a disproportionate impact on poor people. It was my impression that even the related issues of unintended pregnancy and abortion stood to benefit from the work of an administration that supported economic opportunity around the world and expanded healthcare availability for pregnant women.

Friday the Vatican was closed to tourists for the Obama Family's visit, but crowds gathered outside Vatican City to see the Presidential Motorcade make its way inside. There was a tangible sense of promise for the future of the world as the two leaders talked inside. The Harvard-trained lawyer-turned-President was good-humored, and the Pope was gracious. One story that hummed in the air was the subject of a letter written by Senator Ted Kennedy, hand delivered by Obama to Pope Benedict. Given the contentious political atmosphere in the U.S., with conservative strategists increasingly trying to pit one end of the Catholic family against the other, I wondered if Senator Kennedy hadn't appealed to the Pope to stop the bickering.

Unless you're President Obama, coming to the Vatican is very much about standing in line. The day after Obama's visit with Pope Benedict, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and his family found themselves pushing through a crowd of thousands (with the help of a dark suited team of scowling security men) as they worked their way from the Pieta sculpture of Michelangelo (1499) to the spiral bronze altar piece of Bernini (1633). But having had the Basilica to themselves, the Obama Family missed witnessing the joyful astonishment of a thousand fellow gawkers.

Indeed waiting in line at the Vatican is an essential part of the social experience. Filing through the Piazza San Pietro for a sun-drenched hour to gain admission through the pearly gated metal detectors (2001) is an opportunity to see patience in action (the Dutch more than the Spanish) and the varied tastes with regard to what one wears when one explores the world's most cavernous church (Americans more likely to wear shorts).


Above St Peter's Square resides a ring of statues, all peering down at the crowd beneath. It proved difficult to find anyone who knew the identities of the immortalized individuals perched there. Each one stood atop a portico supported by smooth massive Doric columns (1667) lined up four abreast in the design of Bernini. My nine-year-old son wondered aloud whether each statue might represent one of the popes--and because one end of the structure was in scaffolding, whether the workers might be busy sculpting a new one of Pope Benedict (!).

But eavesdropping on an overly-dramatic British tour guide, one learned that the statues represent 140 larger-than-lifesized saints crowning the cornice -- their true identities perhaps known only to heaven. Lined up so symmetrically, in a huge arc around St. Peter's Square, it became clear that in Rome even the saints have to stand in line.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

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"Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.

"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

"On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics."

First Inaugural Address, President Barack Obama

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