The Little Green Book

The Pope gave a little book to US President Barack Obama after their meeting today in the Vatican. “This is a document about bioethics,” the Pope said. And the president replied, “Oh, what we discussed earlier. I’ll have some reading to do on the plane”…

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome 

“Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly color. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.” — Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932), Chapter 2 (a description of five types or “levels” of human beings being created in test tubes in a future society in which biotechnology is far advanced and triumphant)

“Human cloning is dangerous, profoundly wrong.” —US President Barack Obama, March 9, 2009 (See:

“When human beings in the weakest and most defenseless stage of their existence are selected, abandoned, killed or used as pure ‘biological matter’, how can it be denied that they are no longer being treated as ‘someone’ but as ‘something’, thus placing the very concept of human dignity in doubt?”—Pope Benedict XVI, January 31, 2008 (See:

This morning, I wrote a newflash in which I imagined a conversation between Pope Benedict XVI and President Barack Obama during their meeting this afternoon.

This evening, after hearing reports about the contents of the meeting, I think it unfolded almost as I imagined it would.

As the quotes above suggest, on some bioethical issues, like the cloning of human beings, the positions of Obama and Benedict (that is, of Obama and the Church) are not far apart. And their views on many issues in the social and economic sphere also are not in grave conflict.

But on some issues concerning human life, and the dignity and inviolability of that life, the positions of the two diverge quite sharply.

The Vatican, officially, was at pains after the meeting to emphasize the areas of convergence.

That explains why, in the official communique issued about an hour after the meeting by the Pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J. (see below), there is no mention of any areas of difference whatsoever.

But there were areas of difference.

And those areas were discussed frankly by the two men. We know this from hints received just after the meeting, as I will explain below.

But we do not know precisely what was said. That remains a mystery.

US President Barack Obama arrived in the San Damaso courtyard, at the heart of Vatican City, at 4:02 p.m. Rome time, just after the bells tolled 4 o’clock. (His wife, Michelle, and two daughters, Malia and Sasha, along with other family members and staff, had arrived earlier in the afternoon, and were inside the Vatican on a private tour of the Sistine Chapel.)

I was standing in the corner of the cortile with about 25 other members of the press corps — actually, a surprisingly small group considering the importance of this visit.

Only three journalists were chosen to be present in the “pool” in the Pope’s library (where I am scheduled to be tomorrow morning, with the Prime Minister of Canada, which should give me a moment to greet the Pope). There were also a handful of photographers.

This is because the Pope’s library would become too crowded if a huge group of 30 or 40 journalists came along with each visitor.

I was happy simply to be present in the courtyard. I didn’t particularly wish to meet Obama, or talk to him. I just wanted to see him, and to be physically present, in order to try to gauge the mood of the moment.

And so I watched Obama closely as he got out of his black limousine with the license plate 800-007 (oddly, the other vehicles in the convoy all had the same license plate number).

He unfolded his lanky frame, strode over to the line of 12 “gentlemen” of the Pontifical Household who had lined up to greet him and then, after just a moment’s pause, politely shook hands with each man.

There was a simplicity and spontaneity about him in seeming contrast to the fact that he is the leader of the greatest temporal power in the world.

He seemed quite slender. His head bent slightly as he greeted each gentleman. When a little breeze came across the square and unfurled the yellow Vatican flag above the cortile, I thought his slender form swayed a bit with the wind.

Archbishop James Harvey, an American from Milwaukee, then turned with Obama to go into the Apostolic Palace. With large, vigorous steps, the president walked up the red carpet and inside…

Obama met with Pope Benedict for 35 minutes. There is no record of what was said during that time — just a few hints.

Here is the Vatican statement issued after the meeting:

“This afternoon, Friday 10 July 2009, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI received in Audience the President of the United States of America, His Excellency Mr. Barack H. Obama. Prior to the Audience, the President met His Eminence Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State, and also His Excellency Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States.

“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.

“Reference was also made to immigration with particular attention to the matter of reuniting families.

“The meeting focused as well upon matters of international politics, especially in light of the outcome of the G8 Summit. The conversation also dealt with the peace process in the Middle East, on which there was general agreement, and with other regional situations. Certain current issues were then considered, such as 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. Finally, the importance of educating young people everywhere in the value of tolerance was highlighted.”

Father Lombardi was at pains to say that this communique did not reflect the chronological order of the conversation. So, even though the communique uses such words as “then” and “finally,” we are not to understand that this was the order of topics discussed; they could have been in a different order.

But the strange things about this Vatican communique is that it leaves out the most important thing that happened at the meeting.

And, in leaving it out, the communique misses the sense of the meaning entirely.

The Little Green Book

The Pope gave Obama a book.

A little green book.

No, it wasn’t the social encyclical he just published on July 7, Veritas in Caritate, which was the planned gift, announced in another press office bulletin. (The Pope did give him the encyclical, as planned, in a special white leather cover edition.)

Rather, it was an Instruction published on December 12, 2008, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entitled Dignitas Personae — “The Dignity of the Person.”

This gift was evidently added at the last minute, because it was not mentioned in the pre-visit press communique.

However, it is not clear whether it was added to the “gift list” during the last hours or days prior to the visit, or at the very last moment — during the visit itself…

What is Dignitas Personae?

It is a Vatican document which makes the philosophical and theological argument that human beings have a profound, inalienable dignity.

It is a book which lays out the philosophical and theological basis for a just society, beginning with the defense of the most innocent of human beings, the unborn.

It is not a definitive statement of the Church’s position, and some in the Church have been critical of certain aspects of the document.

“Its arguments are not well-developed and it does not address important counterarguments that have been advanced by critics of the Church’s teaching,” one such critic has written. “It contains notable ambiguities and, on some points, vulnerabilities that will be exploited by liberal bioethicists if they are asked to comment publicly on the document in the context of the Pope’s having given it to Obama. Even if Obama were open-minded (which he manifestly is not) there is very little chance that he would be challenged much in his thinking by the presentation of the Church’s positions in Dignitas Personae.”

Nevertheless, the document is an authoritative statement of the Church’s pro-life position, and one wonders whether Obama has ever read such a document with real attention.

Its Latin title, Dignitas Personae, comes from the first line and summarizes its focus, “the dignity of a person,” that is, of each and every person.

The instruction builds upon a prior instruction, Donum Vitae (February 22, 1987) which it notes was “particularly significant” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was the major author of the text).

Dignitas Personae makes four main points:

Point #1: the dignity of each human being. Simply because they are very young, embryos, for example, may not be sacrificed or manipulated to help other, older human beings (i.e., those who are already born). Human dignity forbids not only the killing but also the “manipulation” of the human being. “Hybrids” of human and animal genetic material should not be created (though this is already legal in some countries).

Closely allied to this first principle is the fact that human life should always and solely be conceived within the married love of husband and wife, “the fruit of marriage.”

Point #2: the Church is on the side of true science. Science is knowledge that serves humanity. But science must be subject to ethical principles designed to protect the dignity and equality of all human beings.

Point #3: the Church is on the side of wisdom. The document argues that we must be sure we are not overstepping ethical boundaries before we go forward with new approaches and techniques.

Point #4: the duties of politicians. Elected representatives are obliged to take ethical principles into account in making policy.

The document stresses the need to protect innocent human life from the moment of conception. “The human being,” it says, citing Donum Vitae, “is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.'” (Paragraph 4)

The document also, at least implicitly, offers a strong defense of marriage as something which must be between a man and a woman, and not between individuals of the same sex: “Marriage, present in all times and in all cultures, ‘is in reality something wisely and providently instituted by God the Creator with a view to carrying out his loving plan in human beings. Thus, husband and wife, through the reciprocal gift of themselves to the other – something which is proper and exclusive to them – bring about that communion of persons by which they perfect each other, so as to cooperate with God in the procreation and raising of new lives.'” (Paragraph 6)

(Here is a link to the text of Dignitas Personae:

Brief Reflection on Science and Biotechnology

From the time I first read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley almost 40 years ago, I have been wary of the use of science and technology to create human beings: to make babies in test-tubes, to mass produce them.

And over the years, as we have moved closer to the horrifying vision of Huxley (expressed in the quote at the beginning of this newsflash), I have wondered what the real reason is for this seemingly inexorable slide toward an evident dystopia (the opposite of a utopia).

And I think the answer goes back to the story of Faust.

Faust or Faustus (Latin for “auspicious” or “lucky”) is the protagonist of a classic German legend who makes a pact with the Devil in exchange for knowledge.

The Faust of the early Faust-books—and of the ballads, dramas and puppet-plays which grew out of them—is irrevocably damned because he prefers human to divine knowledge (“he laid the Holy Scriptures behind the door and under the bench, refused to be called doctor of Theology, but preferred to be styled doctor of Medicine”).

Men desire to know, and there seem to be no limits to this desire. Men desire to be omniscient, to know everything there is to know.

But to be a man is by definition to be limited, both in physical and in intellectual ways.

Still, men seek to surpass these limits. In fact, in doing so, they seek to become God, or God-like — and they are often willing to make a pact with the Devil, it seems, to reach this goal.

Those who wish to play God with human life, to build new human beings, better human beings, may not intend to do evil. They may wish to do only good things. They may wish for better human health — a better human race!

But there is a problem here, a problem and a trap.

The problem is that “science” is often just “ignorance” with a veneer — perhaps one step removed from complete ignorance, containing some new knowledge, yes, about DNA organization, for example, but still far short of a complete, and true, knowledge.

We can see this when we look at the “science” of past centuries: it has never been definitive; it is a slow process of building up knowledge, with breakthroughs and setbacks, never completed.

It is a process, not an end.

But in our age, the admittedly dramatic successes of “science,” despite its limitations — in communications, in computing, in nanotechnology, in biochemistry, in nuclear energy, to mention just a few — have given “science” the veneer of divinity.

This, many think, our modern science, our modern knowledge, is the “true hope of mankind.”

This, they think, is what will provide us someday with healing, with health, with (some dare to think) immortality — and woe to anyone who would stand in the way of “knowledge” or “progress” or “research” toward this noble end!

So this has become the secular religion of our age, lacking in humility… lacking in wisdom… disdainful or morality…

And like other religions in more primitive times, many are willing to pay any price, make any sacrifice, to please this new “god,” this rapacious desire for “knowledge” at all costs — including human sacrifice…

Obama came down from the meeting just after 5:14 p.m, got into his limousine with his wife and children, and drove out of the Vatican to catch a flight to Ghana, where he was expected at a state dinner this evening. He had been in the Vatican for a little more than one hour.

How the meeting went

Father Lombardi, speaking in the press office at about 6 p.m., said the meeting and the atmosphere were “very cordial and serene.”

He said “the president clearly has charisma and this was noted by the people around the Pope, from the prefecture (of the papal household) as well as the Gentlemen of His Holiness. He has a great capacity for treating people well.”

Fr. Lombardi said the Pope told him afterwards he was “extremely satisfied, content and serene” with how the talks went between the two.

The Pope noted that the president spoke of his commitment to reduce the number of abortions and noted his attention to the position of the Church and her position on moral issues, Lombardi said.

The Pope said Obama was an attentive interlocutor and a willing listener, Lombardi said.

In the area of international politics, Lombardi referred to the Middle East situation, saying, “here there is a convergence of views,” especially with regard to the fact there must be two independent States (Palestine and Israel), that settlements be stopped, and that all sides – Israel, Arab states and Palestine – be disposed to talk and to stop violence and agree to peace.

He said both men highlighted the role of education in the commitment to peace, especially in order to create a new mentality of peace. The Pope spoke of the role of the Church in education and President Obama recalled his early education in a Catholic school, Lombardi said.

Father Lombardi stressed the importance of the meeting between two leaders, one – the Pope – a moral leader, saying that when two people meet personally and get to know each other, this is always a great step forward.

He said Pope Benedict and President Obama spoke English to each other, although two other people were present – Msgr. Peter Wells of the Secretariat of State and an interpreter from the Obama delegation.

When asked about the Pope’s gift to Obama of Dignitas Personae, Fr. Lombardi said “this was not foreseen, but its meaning is clear.”

Repeating himself, Lombardi said the Pope did not wish to stress differences, but rather to place topics and viewpoints on the table with “clarity and objectivity.”

He again defined the meeting as cordial, serene and very productive.

Hints of what happened

The reporters on the scene today said this is what they saw:

When the president and Pope met, Benedict said, “Mr. President, welcome,” and Obama responded: “Thank you so much. It is a great honor for me. Thank you.”

As they were both seated at the Pope’s desk, surrounded for a few minutes by TV, photographers and journalists Obama said to the Pope: “You must be very used to having your photo taken… I am still getting used to it.”

While the pictures were still being taken, Benedict XVI asked the president about the just-concluded G8 summit in L’Aquila. “You must be tired after all these discussions,” Benedict said.

The president responded that the meetings marked “great progress” and “something concrete,” although the precise topic they were discussing at that point was unclear.

Then, the President and Obama went into a separate room, and the reporters could not hear or see any more of the conversation.

The pool of three reporters waited in a small adjoining closet while the Pope and president spoke privately.

At a certain moment, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, the Pope’s private secretary, opened the door and handed them three copies of a little green book.

He said to them, they reported: “Together with the autographed copy of the encyclical, there will be another gift for the president, a copy of Dignitas personae. Reading it might help the president understand the position and teaching of the Church on these issues.”

The reporters were then allowed to see the very end of the Pope’s meeting with the president.

They said that when Pope Benedict gave Obama the encyclical, and then the little green booklet Dignitas personae, he said, “This is a document about bioethics,” and the president replied, “Oh, what we discussed earlier. I’ll have some reading to do on the plane.”

President Obama’s entourage also included Gen. James Jones, national security adviser; Mona Sutphen, White House deputy chief of staff; Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications; Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary; and David Axelrod, senior adviser to the president.

Pope Benedict gave Obama a mosaic showing St. Peter’s Basilica and Square, an autographed copy of the encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”) and a medal marking the fifth year of his pontificate.

The president told the Pope the mosaic, which was made in the Vatican’s mosaic studio, “was very beautiful” and would have “a place of honor” in the White House.

The president gave the Pope a liturgical stole that had been on the remains of St. John Neumann, the first U.S. male citizen to be proclaimed a saint.

Then Pope Benedict told the president: “A blessing on all your work and also for you.”

The president responded, “Thank you very much. We look forward to a very strong relationship… It was very productive, especially today.”

A Benedict-Obama Alliance?

Many observes are perplexed by the way the Vatican seemingly has embraced a US president (Obama) who is evidently very strongly committed to the idea of legalized abortion and homosexual marriage.

Some pro-life Catholics have told me they are scandalized that the Pope has even agreed to meet with Obama.

But there is no doubt that the Pope has attempted to engage Obama in a conversation, a dialogue.

First, the Pope spoke with Obama right after he was elected last November.

“I’ve had a wonderful conversation with the Pope over the phone right after the election,” Obama told a group of Catholic journalists in Washington before he left for Europe. “And in some ways we see this as a meeting with any other government — the government of the Holy See. There are going to be some areas where we’ve got deep agreements; there are going to be some areas where we’ve got some disagreements.”

L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily newspaper, gave Obama a positive review after his first 100 days in office. In a front-page editorial, it said that even on ethical questions Obama hadn’t confirmed the “radical” direction he discussed during the campaign.

Tensions grew when Obama was invited to receive an honorary degree at the leading U.S. Catholic university, Notre Dame. Dozens of U.S. bishops denounced the university and the local bishop boycotted the ceremony.

Former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, who now heads a Vatican tribunal, accused Obama of pursuing anti-life and antifamily agendas. He called it a “scandal” that Notre Dame had invited him to speak.

Yet L’Osservatore concluded that Obama was looking for some common ground with his speech, noting he asked Americans to work together to reduce the number of abortions.

Some American Catholics then criticized the Vatican newspaper for its accommodating stance.

This week, Cardinal Justin Rigali, who heads the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, complained that the final guidelines of the National Institutes of Health for human embryonic stem cell research are broader than the draft guidelines.

As a child in Indonesia, Obama’s Muslim father enrolled him in Catholic school for a few years. Obama is a Protestant.

Patrick Whelan, president of Catholic Democrats, told Catholic News Service in Rome today that with Obama’s visit and the nomination of Miguel Diaz, a theologian, as ambassador to the Holy See, “I think there is a new era about to be launched — a positive, productive one.”

“I think people at the Vatican realize he has some grounding in Catholic social teaching” and that he is able to mobilize and motivate young people for good, Whelan said.

On the issue of abortion, “Obama has taken a third way — the whole abortion-reduction strategy is not just window dressing,” he said. “I think they (Obama administration officials) are very committed to doing something to reduce abortions without resorting to criminalization.”

Whelan said studies have shown that poverty has a huge impact on abortion rates and “I think the best thing for the unborn was Obama’s economic stimulus package.”

McDonough said Obama had been influenced by Catholic social teaching and by Catholic social service programs, particularly when he worked with Catholic-funded programs as a community organizer in Chicago.

In the early July issue of the Italian Catholic magazine 30 Giorni, Cardinal Georges Cottier, the former theologian of the papal household, said the criticism from the U.S. bishops over Obama’s support of legal abortion was justified.

But, he said, Obama’s expressed commitment to reducing the number of abortions and guaranteeing conscientious objection rights for health workers shows that “his words go in the direction of diminishing the evil.”

After the meeting was over, but before Father Lombardi’s press briefing, I went over to a little cafe below the building where Cardinal Ratzinger used to live before he became Pope.

There I ran into Cardinal John Foley of Philadelphia, who used to be the head of the Vatican’s Social Communications office. We sat down together for a brief chat.

“Have you heard anything about the meeting with the president?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve heard it went very well. Very serene. The Pope was very frank… There was a very good spirit.”

“How was the Pope frank?” I asked.

“He explained the Church’s position on pro-life and biotechnology issues to the president,” Foley said. “I think President Obama has to have been impressed by this Pope. He is a kind, learned, gentle, very deeply spiritual man…”

“But does this have political implications?” I asked. “Does it mean the Church is tilting toward the Democratic Party?”

“No, not at all,” Foley said, shaking his head. “No, you should look at what Cardinal George of Chicago just said at the meeting of the US bishops in Dallas in 2004. He said the Democratic Party, which used to be so close to ordinary Catholics and in harmony with so many Catholic principles, has lost its soul with some of its positions today.”

“And the Republican Party…?”

“Well,” Foley said, smiling a little, “what Cardinal George said was, ‘Of course, the Republican Party never had a soul.'”

Final reflection

Evidently, Benedict feels he can appeal to Obama to reconsider his position on abortion and homosexual marriage.

Most serious pro-life Catholics in America would believe that this is naive — that it is silly to think that Obama will make even a slight change in his position in favor of legalized abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

Nevertheless, it appears that the Pope made the argument to Obama today that all of the president’s social policies will ultimately fail and leave no enduring good fruit unless he takes up a position in defense of human dignity — of the dignity of the human person — in all cases, at all times, from the beginning to the end of life.

And, as astonishing as it seems, Obama has apparently agreed to at least study the arguments of the Church on this point.

That is the meaning of the words: “Oh, what we discussed earlier. I’ll have some reading to do on the plane.”

Of course, we do not know whether Obama actually read the book while on the plane tonight…


St. Anthony on the Judgments of God

“When Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgments of God, he asked, ‘Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?’ He heard a voice answering him, ‘Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.'” —St. Anthony of Egypt

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