On July 10, President Obama and his Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, will meet for the first time. They will like each other and find much in common. It is reasonable to suppose that their conversation will be framed as much by the Holy Father's recent encyclical writing as by the president’s policy initiatives.
A lot has happened in papal politics since Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, stood barefoot and hatless at the gates of Canossa castle begging pardon from Pope Gregory VII. That was 932 years ago while popes were slugging it out with temporal rulers like Henry over who had the right to appoint bishops.
As current practice shows, the popes won that protracted battle but eventually lost the war over the control of worldly affairs. Though the popes can exert moral influence, they lost the ability to direct international affairs a long time ago (“how many divisions does the pope have,” Stalin famously quipped).
Benedict XVI, therefore, lacks anything like the clout of Gregory VII. Unable to dish out many favors, however, he might seek a big one from Barak Obama when the President comes calling in July. Obama could be seen as good medicine for a struggling papacy: a popular, gregarious young politician who has won widespread admiration and popularity, some of the very things Benedict needs to prop up a sagging reign.
Unless the earth collides with another planet the day before, the July 10 meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and U.S. President Barack Obama, confirmed by the Vatican last week, ought to be a major news story on the strength of both style and substance.
At the level of style, it’s an odd-couple match made in Heaven. One can pick a favorite contrast: Obama the ultimate in hip, and Benedict the shy professor; Obama the icon of youthful vigor, Benedict now a venerable 82; Obama the master of 21st century communications, Benedict the occasionally PR-challenged pontiff; Obama the symbol of multiculturalism, almost a walking billboard for the United Colors of Benetton, versus Benedict the consummate old-world European.
Pope Benedict XVI offered his public support to the United Nations' efforts to prevent the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers and said he prays each day for suffering children around the world.
At the end of his weekly general audience June 24, the pope greeted Radhika Coormaraswamy, the U.N. secretary-general's representative for children and armed conflict, who was accompanied by Grace Akallo, a former child soldier, and Sacred Heart Sister Rosemary Nyerumbe, who runs a center for former child soldiers in northern Uganda.
The pope told the group he had deep "appreciation for the commitment to defend child victims of violence and weapons."
"I remember all the children of the world, especially those who are exposed to fear, abandonment, hunger, abuse, sickness and death. The pope is close to all of these little victims and remembers them always in his prayers," he said.
For Akallo, now a 29-year-old graduate student in the United States, the voice of the pope is very important.
Rip Van Winkle famously went to sleep for twenty years and missed the American Revolution. Had he been a modern expert in Catholic-Jewish relations, however, Van Winkle could have awoken from two decades of slumber this week and felt right at home, as long-standing tensions over both Pope Pius XII and the conversion of Jews once again roiled the inter-faith waters.
Taken together, these episodes suggest that for all the progress in Catholic-Jewish ties over the last half-century, the relationship is nonetheless stuck in a couple of ruts that just seem to get deeper over time.
Current events also illustrate another point: Sometimes matters that look like divisions between Jews and Catholics are fueled at least as much by intramural Catholic tensions, with Jews sometimes caught in the crossfire.
tVATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI will welcome U.S. President Barack Obama to the Vatican July 10 for an audience scheduled to begin at 4 p.m.
tObama will visit Italy July 8-10 to participate in the Group of Eight summit, a meeting of leaders of the world's wealthiest nations. The meeting will be held in L'Aquila, site of a devastating earthquake in April.
tAfter the G-8 summit, the president and his wife, Michelle, are scheduled to fly to Ghana, arriving late July 10.
tAlthough Pope Benedict usually meets heads of state and government in the morning, the Vatican agreed to host Obama's first visit to the papal palace the evening before he flies to Africa.
tIt is not clear whether Miguel Diaz, a theology professor tapped by Obama to be the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, will be present for the meeting. As of June 23, the Senate hearing for the new ambassador's confirmation was not on the public schedule of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
News coverage of Pope Benedict XVI tends to leap from big event to big event, so perhaps it's no surprise that after his Holy Land pilgrimage last month the German pontiff has fallen off the mainstream media radar.
To cite a single but typical example, in the month following the Holy Land trip the New York Times did not report about any of the pope's activities at the Vatican. Even in Italy, coverage of Pope Benedict has fallen off markedly.
The pope is likely to step back into the spotlight when he meets with President Barack Obama and when he issues his encyclical on social justice -- two major events expected in the first half of July.
But then the pope goes on vacation outside of Rome, and re-emerges only at the end of September with a visit to the Czech Republic. He doesn't completely disappear, of course; he continues to give talks and meet with individuals and groups. But the press will take little notice.
WARSAW, Poland -- A Polish archbishop has urged people with letters from John Paul II not to publish them out of respect for the late pontiff.
t"If such letters are somewhere in the family, let's keep them as a great sacredness, a kind of souvenir. Let's not put them in print," Archbishop Jozef Zycinski of Lublin said.
There is a popular Spanish saying that observes, “Tell me who you walk with and I’ll tell you who you are.” President Obama’s nomination of Miguel Díaz as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See raises key questions about the company the nominee keeps. This interest is piqued by the relatively unknown status of Díaz in political circles, the groundbreaking nomination of the first Hispanic to hold the position and the curious selection of a Catholic theologian. To some the Díaz nomination appears baffling and to others he is the dark horse candidate that no one saw coming.
National churches don’t have delegates in Rome, so officially nobody’s there to speak for American Catholicism. Informally, however, high-profile Americans in and around the Vatican present faces of the Catholic community in the States, both to Rome and to the wider Catholic world.
In that light, President Barack Obama’s May 27 appointment of Cuban-American theologian Miguel Díaz as ambassador to the Holy See is especially intriguing, because Díaz embodies two currents in American Catholicism heretofore not terribly visible in the Eternal City: its burgeoning Hispanic wing, and its center-left theological guild.
In part because Díaz is not well known outside theological circles, and in part because he doesn’t have a clear record on the hot-button issue of abortion, reaction to the appointment has been fairly muted. As time goes on, however, two baseline readings seem plausible:
- Díaz could be seen as a deft nod to the diversity of the American church, as well as a potential bridge between Catholicism’s traditional centers in Europe and North America and its emerging voices in the global South.