Same Pope, Different Moral Authority

A little over two years ago, President Bush met with Pope Benedict XVI for the first time. News accounts of the meeting emphasized the Pope’s opposition to the War in Iraq. This theme also dominated reports of the visits between President Bush and Pope John Paul II. Each visit by President Bush to the Vatican served as a catalyst for anti-American and anti-war protests, with thousands of protesters filling the streets of Rome in opposition to the US-led war in Iraq.


I personally love this headline — “Pope Expected to Challenge Bush on U.S. Policies” — because it so nicely encapsulates the expectations of the liberal press. Whenever the Bush Administration strayed from “Christian principles” (a juicy bit of “hypocrisy” given President Bush’s candor about his Christian faith, yet an expected turn of events because all good liberal reporters know that conservatives are nothing but warmongering, greedy bastards) the Pope was supposed to smack the White House back in line.

Today, that whole scene just seems so “2008”.

On Friday, Pope Benedict met for the first time with President Barack Obama. But instead of the President’s visit making headline news, with liberals cheering from the sidelines expecting a Papal smackdown and thousands of effigy-laden protesters clogging the streets of Rome, the meeting passed by quickly and quietly, with scant media attention. And Newsweek magazine (the official news weekly of wealthy, more affluent Americans) even treated its readers to a puffed-up piece of nonsense by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend entitled “Without A Doubt: Why Barack Obama represents American Catholics better than the pope does“. Here’s a sample:

… Obama’s pragmatic approach to divisive policy (his notion that we should acknowledge the good faith underlying opposing viewpoints) and his social-justice agenda reflect the views of American Catholic laity much more closely than those vocal bishops and pro-life activists. When Obama meets the pope tomorrow, they’ll politely disagree about reproductive freedoms and homosexuality, but Catholics back home won’t care, because they know Obama’s on their side. In fact, Obama’s agenda is closer to their views than even the pope’s.

It’s fitting that Obama’s visit comes just days after the publication of “Charity in Truth,” a Vatican encyclical that declares unions, regulation of capitalism’s excesses, and environmentalism to be ethical imperatives. The document gives moral credence to Obama’s message and to progressive politics writ large.

In March 2007, about three months before that first meeting between George W. Bush and Pope Benedict XVI, Zogby International published its semi-annual “Contemporary Catholic Trends.” Here are a few excerpted statistics from the report, which was compiled from an extensive survey of 1,522 Roman Catholics:

  • 68 percent and 47 percent strongly agreed that priests and the pope are doing a good job, respectively.
  • Seventy-two percent agreed that their faith provides quite a bit (34 percent) or a great deal (38 percent) of guidance in their personal life.
  • Fifty-nine percent said religion does not currently have enough influence in American public life.
  • Respondents were split – 50 percent supporting to 45 percent opposing – U.S. government efforts to address the reduction of income differences between rich and poor.
  • 63 percent of respondents believed the war in Iraq has increased the chances of a future terrorist attack in the United States, yet 43 percent felt that the war was necessary as a part of the larger war against terrorism. A majority of U.S. Catholics (56 percent) believed the Patriot Act made the U.S. safer from a terrorist attack.
  • Seventy-one percent said that stabilizing Iraq is necessary for the future safety of the United States.

By and large the mainstream media ignored those survey results when reporting on President Bush’s meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, even though with only a minimal amount of effort the Zogby survey data could have been used to show that American Catholics in fact had a great deal in common with the policies of the Bush Administration. Obviously that was not the narrative that guided the mainstream media representation of encounters between the Vatican and the White House during the Bush years. Even though the press came down hard against the Bush Administration, conservatives never went out of their way to claim that President Bush was a “better Catholic” than the Pope. But now that a Democrat is in the White House, liberals like Kathleen Kennedy Townsend find it imperative to find as many similarities as possible between the beliefs of American Catholics and White House policies.

What could have caused liberals to suddenly feel the need to qualify the moral authority of the Pope?

Some people believed that Pope Benedict’s meeting with Barack Obama amounted to a slap in the face of conservative American Catholics, who have criticized Obama’s liberal stands and actions on abortion, a silly notion considering the official status of both men. Even more obviously, they didn’t understand Benedict or know his history. When Obama met Benedict, the Pope began with a lesson on the fundamental nature of human life:

… “In the course of their cordial exchanges, the conversation turned first of all to questions which are in the interest of all and which constitute a great challenge … such as the defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one’s conscience,” the statement said.

Even in his gift to the U.S. leader, the pope sought to underscore his beliefs. Benedict gave Obama a copy of a Vatican document on bioethics that hardened the church’s opposition to using embryos for stem cell research, cloning and in-vitro fertilization. Obama supports stem cell research.

“Yes, this is what we had talked about,” Obama said, telling the pope he would read it on the flight to his next stop, Ghana.

There is no word in this report about what Obama gave the Pope as a gift, although it does say that Obama brought a letter from Ted Kennedy and a request to keep the Senator in the Pope’s prayers. One hopes that Obama is getting better protocol advice on gift exchanges than he did with Gordon Brown’s visit and his audience with Queen Elizabeth. The Pope’s gift, though, sent a message. The Vatican later confirmed that Benedict had only given copies of his recent encyclical on human dignity in economics to other heads of state, not the policy position on bioethics.

Finally — a real Papal smackdown. Only … this was not the smackdown that Liberals were looking for: a conversation dominated by the Pope and centered around the sanctity of human life and the Church’s opposition to the destruction of human embryos for medical research; a special copy of a Papal encyclical on bioethics which no other head of state has received.

All of the sudden, frightened liberals have started circling the wagons and questioning the absolute moral authority that they so eagerly gave the Vatican during the height of the Iraq war.

A decade ago, American conservatives wondered if Pope John Paul II would ever speak directly to President Clinton about his numerous marital infidelities. Adultery is, after all, a sin. Yet we also wondered if the mainstream media would actually feel compelled to report on such a conversation. With a Democrat in the White House again, we seem to be right back in the same situation. The moral authority given to the Pope over matters of war (a war that is still ongoing by the way, despite the overall lack of mainstream media interest since January 20th) suddenly seems to be a bad thing when applied to abortion and bioethics. So much for the “fierce moral urgency of change.”

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