In announcing his selection of Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state Monday, President-elect Barack Obama remarked that his choice was "a sign to friend and foe of the seriousness of my commitment to renew American diplomacy and restore our alliances." The Obama administration will face an array of foreign policy problems that will not be resolved in its time in office and will require all the resources and allies it can muster. Obama’s senior advisors understand that the world is a dangerous place. President-elect Obama would do well to look for all available allies, and one such ally, which may be less obvious to him, is the Holy See.
As John Allen of The National Catholic Reporter has observed, a strong relationship between the Holy See and the United States would help both parties. Domestically, it would reassure those who voted for Obama despite questions about where he stands on traditional beliefs and institutions of the West. It would be popular among Americans who see Pope Benedict XVI as a spiritual leader, both in the Church and beyond. It would help continue cooperation on aiding the poorest of the poor, begun with President Bush’s dramatic increases in assistance to Africa, and it would reinforce the relationship between the world’s largest donor nation and the world’s largest dispenser of assistance. It could ease friction on some of the difficult policy choices the next administration may have to make, such as ending Iran’s nuclear program. And a visibly respectful relationship with the Vatican would aid in regaining the moral stature that Obama and others feel America has lost.
While Obama’s views on many issues seem set, he is known to enjoy discussion and argument. There is at least hope (a word that figured prominently in the pope’s second encyclical, his highly successful visit here, and the American presidential campaign) that the president-elect might be open to the combination of faith and reason that this pope has so well and consistently proffered as the basis for Christian belief. Obama may be open as well to the practical implications of that powerful combination. In particular, the same pope who drew such ire and disdain for a brief reference to Islam in his Regensburg address, and has subsequently enjoyed unexpected and unprecedented success in intercultural dialogue with Muslims, would have much to offer the new president on Islamic extremism, one of the major threats facing the West. More broadly, this pope’s Christian humanism and profound grasp of “what makes people tick” could provide a marvelous source of counsel.
To gain the Vatican as an ally in some cases and a more amiable opponent in others, the president-elect should see Pope Benedict XVI when he is in Italy for the G-8 conference in 2009, or possibly sooner, after the NATO summit in April. He would arrive with several positive bases for a conversation: his own opposition to the war in Iraq tracks with that of the Vatican (although most in the Curia now seem to see the dangers of a precipitous withdrawal), and his emphasis on dialogue with adversaries is aligned with many statements by this pope and his predecessor.
To prepare for such a meeting, the new president should do two things. First, he should read Pope Benedict’s address to the United Nations on human rights and the intellectual and spiritual foundations thereof. The advancement of human rights, including religious liberty, as a good based on a universal morality, has the potential to link the United States and the Vatican in an enduring way like no other issue. Second, he should postpone major revisions to American social policy, especially on abortion, until he has had this meeting and heard from this pope. This would demonstrate openness to the Church as an institution on the public question it considers most urgent, and it would demonstrate at home that President Obama in power, as distinct from candidate Obama, is listening beyond the narrow confines of the Democratic Party’s left wing where he turned for his support early on.
For his part, the pope has reached out with a warm and positive post-election message to the president-elect. But the Vatican must hold firm, in public and in private, on the issues of the greatest moment and where the differences are widest. This assertion of truth is one of the best hopes for those Americans who fear a social agenda in the next four years that would enforce a highly positivist, and relativist, combination of secular social science and leftist shibboleth.
As the inaugural parties pass quickly and the business of foreign policy presses in, President-elect Obama will need all the friends he can find, and he would do well to listen carefully to the views of a pope who has seen a great deal more of history than the new president has experienced.
Joseph Wood is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.
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