Magazine article The Christian Century

Odd Obama, Rome Is More Gentle Than U.S. Bishops

Magazine article The Christian Century

Odd Obama, Rome Is More Gentle Than U.S. Bishops

Article excerpt

Ever since the University of Notre Dame announced that President Obama would receive an honorary degree and speak at its May 17 commencement ceremony, debate among American Catholics has grown increasingly heated.

At least 55 U.S. Catholic bishops (about 20 percent of the total) have criticized Notre Dame for honoring Obama, who supports legalized abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Mary Ann Glendon, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, declined Notre Dame's prestigious Laetare Medal to protest the Obama invitation.

Yet amid all the furor, one voice has remained conspicuously silent: that of the Vatican.

The official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, which normally highlights news about the U.S., as of May 6 had not published a single word on the Notre Dame controversy. That omission is consistent with a record of friendly, even enthusiastic, treatment of Obama since his election last November.

Known as the "pope's newspaper," L'Osservatore is under the direct authority of the Vatican's Secretariat of State, which reportedly vets articles on sensitive topics before publication, particularly when they touch on relations with foreign governments.

The paper's coverage--or rather, lack of it--offers the most extensive evidence so far that the Holy See has opted for a milder approach to Obama than have some important elements of the U.S. church hierarchy.

Observers say the difference in emphasis and tone may be a deliberate decision that allows the Vatican to remain above the domestic American fray in its diplomacy with Washington. It could also reflect divergent assessments of the potential to work with Obama in the future.

Both the U.S. bishops and the Vatican have indicated that they would work with the White House in areas where their aims and policies converge, such as poverty reduction and expansion of health care.

That has not kept prominent members of the church's American leadership from underscoring their disagreements with Obama, however.

Chicago's Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has called the Notre Dame invitation an "extreme embarrassment." He recently had what he described as a polite yet confrontational Oval Office meeting with the president, in which he stressed their differences on abortion. …

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