Waiting for Obama

How is Obama preparing for his visit to Rome? Meanwhile, the Legionaries, and the encyclical once again

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome

Obama and the Pope

US President Barack Obama (photo) will come to Rome on July 10 to meet with Pope Benedict XVI.

I was told yesterday that the two will have about 30 minutes face-to-face, and it was my understanding that during some part of that meeting, no one else would be present.

I would like to get this clarified: Will the two men be totally alone, or will there be one or two advisors along with them?

(Translators should not be necessary, as Benedict speaks English well, although he prefers to speak in his native German, or in Italian…)

The journalists who will be able to go up into the papal library with Obama will see the two men together for only a minute or so. Then Obama and Benedict, in private, will speak directly to one another, without intermediaries.

What will they say?

No one knows.

But Obama, in an evident “lead-up” to the meeting, met on Thursday in Washington with several Catholic journalists, answering their questions and making clear his own positions.

One revealing thing that he said at that July 2 meeting: that Obama has been profoundly influenced by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (photo) of Chicago, whom he came to know when he was a community organizer in a project partially funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Obama said his encounters with the cardinal continue to influence him, particularly Bernardin’s “seamless garment” approach to many social justice issues.

Obama said in some ways he sees his first meeting with the Pope on July 10 as the same as any contact with a head of state, “but obviously this is more than just that.”

Obama added: “The Catholic Church has such a profound influence worldwide and in our country, and the Holy Father is a thought leader and opinion leader on so many wide-ranging issues. His religious influence is one that extends beyond the Catholic Church.”

Obama said he considers it a great honor to be meeting with the Pope and that he hopes the session will lead to further cooperation between the Vatican and the United States in addressing Middle East peace, worldwide poverty, climate change, immigration and a whole host of other issues.

Is human life sacred?

But despite all of the possible areas in which Obama and the Pope can agree, there is at least one area where their disagreement is profound.


Obama believes it should be kept legal; the Pope feels it is a violation of the human right to life, and so should not be legal.

Obama knows he and the Pope differ on this.

He told the eight reporters that he sees “an irreducible difference… on the abortion issue… The best we can do is suggest that people of good will can be on either side, but you can’t wish those differences away.”

Still, Obama continues to try to seek “common ground” on abortion (even though he knows the difference is “irreducible”), and does this by saying he would work to “reduce the circumstances” under which women “feel compelled to obtain an abortion.”

In a speech to a convention of Louisiana priests in April, Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, president of the US bishops’ conference, reported on his private meeting with Obama in March, criticizing the president’s position on abortion.

The cardinal said he told the president, “‘You’ve given us nothing but the wrong signals on this issue.’ So, we’ll see, but I’m not as hopeful now as I was when he was first elected.”

Will the Pope (photo) take the opportunity of his personal meeting with Obama to bring up the “irreducible difference” on this issue? And if he does, will he be able to say anything which will touch Obama and cause him to re-think his position?

I recently told a high-ranking Vatican official that many actively pro-life Catholics say they are scandalized that the Pope has even agreed to meet with Obama.

The Vatican official replied: “We must remember all the aspects of the situation. And one of those aspects has to do with President Obama’s education, his formation. He was not brought up with our formation. We must realize this, and not expect him to think like us. But we must believe that with dialogue there is always hope.”

(Here are links to two complete stories on Obama’s meeting with Catholic journalists, from which my report is drawn: https://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0903039.htm and https://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0903055.htm)

Apostolic Visitation to Legionaries of Christ to Begin July 15

Sandro Magister (photo), an old friend, is one of the leading Vatican journalists. He writes a regular weekly column here: https://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/chi_siamo?eng=y

A few days ago, Magister reported that the investigation of the Legionaries of Christ ordered by Pope Benedict XVI on March 31 would begin in a few days, on July 15.

Here is a full report on the story, from Catholic News Agency, which may be found at https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/new.php?n=16431:

After the announcement on March 31 that Pope Benedict XVI had ordered an Apostolic Visitation of the Legionaries of Christ, many wondered when it would begin. Vatican watcher Sandro Magister has answered the question by reporting it will begin on July 15 and that five bishops have been charged with the task.

Magister states that the visitors will be Bishop Ricardo Watti Urquidi of Tepic, Mexico; Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado; Archbishop Ricardo Ezzati Andrello of Concepcion, Chile; Bishop Giuseppe Versaldi of Alejandria, Italy; and Bishop Ricardo Blazquez Perez of Bilbao, Spain.

Magister said the five bishops were chosen because of their experience and dedication and will be tasked with getting to know the life and apostolate of the congregation. They will present a report to the Holy See at the conclusion of the Visitation.

The five bishops met with Cardinals Tarcisio Bertone, William Levada, Franc Rode and Stanislaw Rylko last Saturday at the Vatican, according to Magister.

Sources at the Holy See confirmed to CNA the accuracy of Magister’s report and said a public announcement would be made on July 15. Sources also said that contrary to the article, Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko was not present at the meeting.

Magister’s report on the areas designated to each bishop was confirmed as accurate.

Bishop Ricardo Watti Urquidi will be tasked with visiting Mexico and Central America; Archbishop Chaput will visit the order in the United States and Canada; while Bishop Giuseppe Versaldi will visit the Legionaries in Italy, Israel, the Philippines and South Korea.

Bishop Ricardo Ezzati will visit the Legionaries in Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela; while Bishop Ricardo Blazquez Perez will be tasked with visiting the order in Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Holland, Poland, Austria and Hungary.

(A later update stated: “Sources at the Holy See confirmed to CNA the accuracy of Magister’s report and said a public announcement would be made on July 15. Sources also said that contrary to the article, Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko was not present at the meeting.”)

Here is a link to web site which contains more information about the history of the visitation of the Legion: https://cassandrajonesing.blogspot.com/


Has the encyclical not yet been signed?

At a lovely outdoor reception this evening on the Janiculum Hill, on the dark green, well-landscaped grounds of the US Embassy to the Holy See, for the celebration of the 4th of July (why it was held on July 3, I do not know), as dozens of diplomats, journalists and guests stood around chatting and holding their glasses of wine or aranciata or Sprite, I was talking to a Vatican monsignor about the upcoming social encyclical.

“It will be signed on July 6,” the monsignor said at one point, “and made public on July 7.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “That can’t be right. It was already signed, on June 29, right? That’s what I thought, that’s what we were told, and that’s what I reported…”

“No,” said the monsignor, who is in a position to know, quite firmly. “That was never said. You misunderstood. It’s not signed yet. The Pope won’t sign it until Monday…”

Held up to wait for events to unfold

The monsignor said the encyclical has been held up for many months because the Pope and the Vatican wished to take account of the more recent developments in the world economic crisis.

The crisis began to be evident in late 2007, then hit a moment of crescendo in September and October of 2008, when major US banking institutions like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Lehman Brothers collapsed amid fears that the entire global financial system might melt down. The crisis now seems to be in a moment of uncertain quiet.

I think the fact of the delay is significant: the Pope took this financial context seriously enough to delay publication of his encyclical until events had unfolded a bit further.

This leads me to think that it may make sense to look at what the Pope, like all the rest of us, has been looking at and waiting to unfold: the financial crisis.

Looking at the financial crisis means understanding its main features, distinguishing cause from effect, clarifying “what went wrong,” or at least what experienced observers think went wrong.

This entails preparing a concise account of recent global financial developments — even though they are not a religious or theological matter — to better understand the context for this encyclical. I will try to publish this account soon, in the next few days.

At the end of the Embassy reception, I met Julieta Valls Noyes (photo), the Deputy Chief of Mission at the United States Embassy to the Holy See since August 2008, and my host for the evening.

She was very welcoming and charming, and we spent some time discussing the various US ambassadors to the Holy See since 1984, when US-Holy See relations were established: William Wilson (1984-86), Frank Shakespeare (1986-89), Thomas Melady (1989-93), Raymond Flynn (1993-97), Corinne Boggs (1997-2001), James Nicholson (2001-2005), Francis Rooney (2005-2008), Mary Ann Glendon (2008-09), and Miguel Diaz, who has been nominated by Obama, but not yet approved by Congress.

I recalled how Frank Shakespeare had given me an interview at the Embassy (photo below) in 1988, when I was writing for 30 Days, in which he said the Soviet Union was about to fall — and it happened a year later. And how once, when I came to meet Ray Flynn, I found him shooting baskets at the basketball hoop which is still there off to the side, and how I had decided to wait until Flynn missed a basket before interrupting him, and how Flynn had hit shot after shot after shot, about 24 in a row, by my count… (Flynn later told me he had been a member of the Boston Celtics for a brief time in the early 1960s.)

Essentially, Julieta is running the US Embassy to the Holy See in Rome until the US Congress approves a replacement for Ambassador Glendon, who left after President Obama was elected, as is customary when a president from a different party enters office.

Glendon has gone back to being a professor of law at Harvard Law School (interestingly, she was a professor there when Obama was a student there two decades ago).

Julieta, who is from New Orleans, is a career US diplomat with over 20 years of foreign and domestic assignments with the U.S. Department of State. She is of Cuban-American background, and speaks Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and is married to Nicholas Noyes, Jr., also a Foreign Service Officer, and they have three children, Alexandra, Nicholas, and Matthew.

What struck me about Julieta was her grace and friendliness, and I asked her why she had entered the Foreign Service.

“I felt it was a vocation,” she told me.

“A vocation?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, “I felt it was the one thing I should do with my life, that this was my calling. I remember when I was with some friends of mine — we were all about 13 or 14 years old, and we were walking down a street in Guatemala where I had gone to do some service work — and it just came over me that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, travel to foreign countries, help people in other countries.”

Then she told me that she is a Catholic. “It’s not required for this post, but I am Catholic, yes.”

It struck me that her journey, from New Orleans, to Guatemala, to the US Foreign Service, to Rome at precisely the moment when Obama is due to visit, and the new ambassador is not yet approved, has perhaps been somehow providential.

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