VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The day after Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, hailed his election as a “choice that unites,” exemplifying America’s ability to “overcome fractures and divisions that until only recently could seem incurable.” Pope Benedict XVI sent the president-elect a congratulatory telegram the same day, noting the “historic occasion” of his election.
Four years later, the Vatican’s reaction to Obama’s re-election had a markedly different tone.
“If Obama truly wants to be the president of all Americans,” said L’Osservatore Nov. 7, “he should finally acknowledge the demands forcefully arising from religious communities — above all the Catholic Church — in favor of the natural family, life and finally religious liberty itself.”
Speaking to reporters the same day, the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, voiced hope that Obama would use his second term for the “promotion of the culture of life and of religious liberty.”
The statements alluded to Obama policies favoring legalized abortion, same-sex marriage and a plan to require nearly all health insurance plans, including those offered by most Catholic universities and agencies, to cover sterilizations and contraceptives, which are forbidden by the Church’s moral teaching.
The insurance mandate in particular, which U.S. bishops have strenuously protested for the past year, has proven an even greater source of division between the Church and the Obama administration than their previous disagreements and threatens to aggravate tensions between Washington and the Vatican during the president’s second term.
From the beginning of Obama’s presidency, his support for legalized abortion and embryonic stem-cell research inspired protests by the Church and controversy within it. Some 80 U.S. bishops publicly criticized the University of Notre Dame for granting Obama an honorary degree in 2009.
Yet the Vatican itself remained largely aloof from such disputes, at least in public statements, and cooperated with the Obama administration on such common international goals as assisting migrants, working against human trafficking and preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS.
But seeing a threat to the freedom of the Church itself, the Vatican changed its approach and chose to address matters more directly.
In January, Pope Benedict told a group of visiting U.S. bishops that he was concerned about “certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion,” through “concerted efforts … to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices.”
Any hopes that the administration might change its policy to the satisfaction of the Church grew faint as the year wore on and the election drew nearer, to the increasingly vocal frustration of several U.S. bishops.
Two days before Americans went to the polls, the papal nuncio to the U.S. made it clear how urgent a priority the nation’s religious liberty had become at the highest levels of the universal Church.
Speaking at the University of Notre Dame Nov. 4, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano devoted most of a speech about “religious freedom, persecution of the Church and martyrdom” to the situation of the United States today.
“The menace to religious liberty is concrete on many fronts,” Archbishop Vigano said, noting the insurance mandate, anti-discrimination policies that require Catholic adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples, and mandatory public school curricula that present same-sex marriage as “natural and wholesome.”
Recalling persecution of Catholics in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the archbishop said that the “problems identified … over six decades ago that deal with the heavy grip of the state’s hand in authentic religious liberty are still with us today.”
A government need not be a dictatorship in order to persecute the Church, the nuncio said, quoting the words of Blessed John Paul II that a “democracy without values easily turns into openly or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”
If the mere timing of his speech was not sufficient to underscore its political implications, Archbishop Vigano concluded by lamenting the support of Catholic politicians and voters for laws and policies that violate Church teaching.
“We witness in an unprecedented way a platform being assumed by a major political party, having intrinsic evils among its basic principles, and Catholic faithful publicly supporting it,” he said. “There is a divisive strategy at work here, an intentional dividing of the Church; through this strategy, the body of the Church is weakened, and thus the Church can be more easily persecuted.”
Jesuit Father Gerald P. Fogarty, a professor of history at the University of Virginia and an expert on U.S.-Vatican relations, said it is extremely rare for a papal diplomat to comment publicly on a host country’s politics in such a way. The closest thing to a precedent in the U.S., Fogarty said, occurred nearly a century ago, during the Vatican’s efforts to persuade belligerent nations to end World War I.
The archbishop’s speech would seem to suggest that the Holy See has made religious liberty in the U.S. an issue in its diplomatic relations with Washington. Yet Miguel H. Diaz, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican since 2009, said that the disagreements between the Church and the Obama administration over the insurance mandate have not interfered with his efforts to cooperate with the Vatican on areas of common concern.
Asked whether such compartmentalization would be possible during Obama’s second term, Diaz, who will step down in mid-November, voiced hope that current tensions, including the dispute over the insurance mandate, might be resolved soon.
“Perhaps my successor will not have the same kinds of issues” to contend with, he said, “because that person will likely have a whole set of different challenges.”
— By Francis X. Rocca, Catholic News Service