Pope Benedict XVI firmly underscored the importance of upholding the dignity of all human life when he met President Barack Obama on Friday.
The Pope not only made it plain from the outset that true progress for people depends on “the defense and promotion of life” but also unexpectedly gave Obama a copy of Dignitas Personae ("Dignity of a Person"), a recent Vatican document explaining the church’s position on abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and other life issues.
And he may have gotten an unexpected concession from Obama, who told the Pope of his commitment “to reduce the number of abortions and of his attention and respect for the positions of the Catholic Church,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the papal spokesman.
Those issues had provoked tension in the run-up to the first meeting between the two world leaders on religious and secular stages.
After the meeting, the Vatican issued a statement saying 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.”
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.
The two leaders also discussed immigration 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 they covered included “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,” the Vatican said. So, too, was “the importance of educating young people everywhere in the value of tolerance.”
The meeting, which has been long anticipated, was a gentlemanly and courteous encounter. Benedict XVI appeared happy to meet the president, telling his guest it had been “a great pleasure.” The president told the Pope several times that he was grateful for the meeting.
President Obama arrived at the Vatican shortly after 4 p.m. Upon greeting the president, who had come straight from L’Aquila where the G8 meeting of world leaders had just ended, the Pope asked him how the summit went, to which Obama replied “it was very productive” and “some concrete things” were achieved.
After the private meeting, the president, joined by wife Michelle, introduced his delegation to the Pope. The group included press spokesman Robert Gibbs, special adviser David Axelrod, and Julieta Valls, charges d’affairs of the U.S. embassy to the Holy See.
Obama also introduced Denis McDonough, one of his national security advisers, and pointed out to the Pope that McDonough’s brother is a priest. The Pope gave each of the delegation a rosary or pontifical medal.
To Obama, the Pope gave an autographed copy of his latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (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,” Obama said. “We’ll have to find a place for it in our house.”
Obama gave the Pope a priestly vestment worn by St. John Neumann, a 19th-century Catholic priest who is the patron saint of sick children and immigrants. Pope Paul VI canonized him in 1977.
The Pope thanked Obama 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.”
Church officials and Swiss Guards then led the party through the ornate corridors of the Apostolic Palace, providing a small guided tour of the masterpieces lining the walls.
Greeting Obama when he arrived at the Vatican was the head of the Pontifical Household, U.S. Archbishop James Harvey. Before meeting the Pope, he and his advisers had a 15-minute private talk with the Vatican’s No. 2, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Joining the cardinal was the Vatican’s "foreign minister," 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: whether Obama will heed the advice of the Pope, fulfill his pledge to reduce abortions, and uphold the dignity of all human life, however small.
The meeting and the Pope’s prayers may help to further him in that direction, but so far his actions on this issue have yet to match these intentions fully.
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