When Pope Benedict XVI meets with President Obama in Rome today, a shy German theologian and a charismatic leader known for his international rock star appeal will find plenty to agree on despite some profound differences in substance and style.
The first meeting between Benedict and Obama comes just days after the pope released his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, a timely and often radical reflection on economic justice, labor unions, international development, and environmental exploitation. Not exactly summer beach reading, encyclicals can be dense and often daunting works for a hyperactive culture more accustomed to texting and tweeting our way through a distracted digital age.
So it's refreshing to find the 82-year-old pontiff is hip to addressing such topical issues as the outsourcing of workers, alternative energy, and the impact of globalization. Benedict delayed its release to more adequately address the shifting contours of the global economic crisis. The finished product is a bold critique of free-market fundamentalism that has left neoconservatives scrambling to downplay populist passages that take a skeptical view of unfettered capitalism. Benedict goes where many U.S. politicians fear to tread in his call for equitable distribution of wealth, robust financial regulations, and the essential role government has in promoting the common good. If the pope were running for political office in the U.S., you can imagine the attack ads blasting him as a socialist. While Pope Benedict is not stealing lines from Marx, he insists that markets devoid of a moral compass are insufficient instruments of justice. As E.J. Dionne Jr. of The Washington Post notes, the pope may even be to the left of the president when it comes to his economic vision.
For Americans battered by Wall Street abuses, rising unemployment, and growing income inequality, the pope's message will resonate far beyond the Vatican walls. Indeed, the AFL-CIO issued a statement praising the encyclical for its powerful defense of unions and workers' rights. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pouring millions into defeating the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act, remained quiet.
While the president and the pope won't agree about legal access to abortion or embryonic stem cell research, Benedict and Obama share a broad, internationalist agenda that includes Middle East peace, nuclear deterrence, the plight of refugees, religious freedom, immigration reform, and global climate change. For centuries, the Holy See has been guided by a keen diplomatic sensibility that recognizes politics is the art of the possible and civil dialogue is a requirement for progress. President Obama, once a faith-based community organizer who has cited his deep admiration for the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, is felicitous with Catholic language and the seamless garment ethic that views poverty, torture, the death penalty, war, and other grave assaults of human dignity as part of any pro-life agenda.
Even on the divisive issue of abortion, the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, has praised the president for supporting abortion-reduction efforts. The Swiss Cardinal George Cottier, the former theologian of the papal household under Pope John Paul II, recently expressed those views in a cover essay in one of Italy's most widely read Catholic journals. Cardinal Cottier noted the president's "humble realism" on abortion and compared the president's Notre Dame commencement address to Pope Paul VI's encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, with its focus on dialogue and common ground, as well as to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) document, Dignitatis Humanae, which addresses the search for truth in a pluralistic society.
In a meeting with religion reporters at the White House last week, the president noted the "profound influence worldwide and in our country" Pope Benedict has as leader of a global church committed to international justice and peace. When they leave the pope's private library after this meeting, expect Benedict and Obama to be smiling: two unlikely allies seeking common ground for the common good.
John Gehring is Deputy Communications Director and Senior Writer for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.