Barack and Benedict XVI

The Vatican’s Approach to a Problem Like Obama

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By Robert Moynihan

ROME, JULY 27, 2009 ( I first walked through Bernini’s colonnade in May 1984. I was going to the Vatican Library to do research for a dissertation in medieval history.

By chance, my topic was very similar to the topic Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, chose for his post-doctoral dissertation, «The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure,» and this gave me material for conversation when I met with Ratzinger on several occasions in the 1980s and 1990s.

On my very first visit to the Vatican library, I met a young scholar named Paolo Vian, son of the renowned Italian Catholic scholar, Nello Vian. Paolo graciously «showed me the ropes» during that summer at the library, helping me enormously.

I soon met Paolo’s older brother, Gian Maria Vian, then a young professor of patristics at the University of Rome, and also a «Vaticanista,» reporting for the daily paper of the Italian bishops’ conference, Avvenire — the same Gian Maria Vian who today is the controversial editor of L’Osservatore Romano, known as the «Pope’s newspaper.»

In the years that followed, I had many occasions to talk with Gian Maria, a man of wide culture and ready wit, and I occasionally dined at his home with him and his wife (she suffered a long, debilitating disease, and sadly passed away several years ago).

So I have known Gian Maria Vian for 25 years, and can call him my friend. Indeed, I saw him several times during July in Rome, and we were able to speak at length.


The editor’s recent positive attitude toward Obama has put Vian at the center of several critical debates in Catholicism today, and has led many to question even the «Catholicity» of L’Osservatore Romano.

In a series of articles this year, Vian and writers he chose have argued that Obama does not seem as much of a pro-abortion president as had been feared.

This has raised eyebrows among those active in the pro-life cause — and sparked anger.

At the time of the emotionally charged debate over Obama’s commencement address May 17 at Notre Dame, which was protested by over 80 U.S. bishops and boycotted by former U.S. Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon because of Obama’s extreme pro-abortion record, Vian justified his more lenient position on the president: «We have noticed that his (Obama’s) entire program prior to his election was more radical than it is revealing itself to be now that he is president. So this is what I meant when I said he didn’t sound like a pro-abortion president.»

U.S. Catholic theologian Michael Novak described Vian’s pro-Obama position as «star struck» and «teenage,» and said that Vian’s political perspective seems «like a blind observer of faraway events — completely ignorant.»

Vian defends himself by saying that the paper is adopting a «waiting and seeing» policy. He said, «We hope that Obama does not follow pro-choice politics; not because we want him to follow Catholic politics, but because we hope and want Obama to guide politics at the service of the weakest, and the weakest are the unborn, the embryos.»

Have Vian, and the Vatican, been downplaying Obama’s vehemently pro-abortion voting record and the pro-abortion record of his administration for «tactical» reasons? And, is such a position morally defensible?

More color!

Benedict XVI chose Vian to take over the editorship of L’Osservatore Romano in 2007.

Until two years ago, the paper’s relationship to the Vatican was like that of Pravda to the Kremlin in the old U.S.S.R.

I remember how I and the other Vatican journalists would always look eagerly for articles signed only by three asterisks — that was the not-so-secret «code» that those articles were «authoritative,» approved at the very highest level of the Vatican.

But the rest of the paper was — sorry to say — boring.

«When I took over the paper,» Vian says, «the Pope wrote me a letter in which he said that L’Osservatore had to be present in the cultural debate. The Pope asked me for more international coverage, more attention to the Christian East, and more space for women.»

So, Vian hired L’Osservatore’s first-ever female staffer.

And he adds: «When the deputy editor and I were invited to see the Pope to talk a bit about the paper three weeks after we were appointed, he gave us to understand that he’d like to see a few more pictures in it.»

Vian decided to use color photographs every day on the front and back. But the new editor’s impact has been most significant in the paper’s content.

The big picture

A month before President Obama’s scheduled visit to see the Pope on July 10, Vian published an editorial that took a positive view of Obama’s first 100 days.

Conservative Catholics in the United States and elsewhere were appalled that, despite Obama’s moves to provide greater access to abortion and stem-cell research, the paper was not denouncing Obama. There were calls for Vian to resign.

When I spoke with Vian a few days ago, I asked him about this controversy. He told me that he still has the «full support» of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. (In fact, Vian is a personal friend of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Pope’s secretary of state.)

What can explain Vian’s position — and, by implication, the position of the Secretariat of State, and, perhaps, of the Pope himself?

Vian told me that the «big picture» needs to be kept in mind, that the Holy See’s agenda, while always and unswervingly pro-life, nevertheless includes many other issues, such as social justice, disarmament, the Middle East and Cuba.

Vian’s position illustrates the considerable differences between the European and American viewpoints on many critical issues of our time. The Europeans (like Vian) focus on points of agreement, and the Americans (like Vian’s critics) focus on points of disagreement.

I do think Vian — and even the Secretariat of State — may be «naïve» about Obama and his intentions.

But I also believe that Americans can become so intent on one grave moral injustice (abortion and the manipulation of human embryos, both of which are always profoundly wrong) that they can ignore other areas of possible agreement.

Is it possible to find a balanced solution, giving proper weight to both points of agreement and disagreement?

The Papal way

The best approach may be the one chosen by Benedict XVI himself in his meeting with Obama on July 10.

I was in the Vatican on that occasion. I saw Obama as he stepped out of his car, and I attended the press conference after the meeting was over.

And two points were clear: the Pope was receiving Obama with warm friendship, and yet, he was not compromising the truth of the Church’s teaching about life. In fact, he made it a special point to hand the president a Vatican document which explains in detail the reasoning behind the Church’s teaching that abortion is always wrong, and experimentation on human embryos is always a violation of the dignity of human life.

The booklet, «Dignitas Personae» (dignity of a person), condemns artificial fertilization and other techniques used by many couples, and also says human cloning, «designer babies» and embryonic stem-cell research are immoral.

The document defends life from conception to natural death, and a Vatican statement issued after the meeting said the topics discussed included «the defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one’s conscience.»

The Pope’s private secretary told reporters after the meeting: «This reading can help the president better understand the Church’s position on these issues.»

We do not know if Obama has read that booklet. (That is something I would like to know, because the arguments in that booklet are compelling.)

The point is, the possibility of reaching Obama with a reasoned argument in defense of life was increased by the way Vian presented Obama’s position during the spring. Obam
a was entering the Vatican on July 10, not as an enemy, but as a human being, to whom the Pope could appeal as one man to another.

Naïve? Perhaps. Time will tell. And the Church will be ready to defend her beliefs if Obama makes clear that he will persist on a course that is directly opposed to those teachings.

Interestingly, on July 23, it was reported that Obama’s health care legislation may be held up due to the opposition of a group of conservative Democrats in the U.S. House who have vowed not to vote for any bill that doesn’t include explicit language banning the use of federal funds for abortion.

They, as well as most Republicans, charge that abortions will otherwise increase if more women have insurance coverage that pays for the procedure.

Obama, when asked if he would favor federally subsidized insurance plans that covered abortion, said, «As you know, I’m pro-choice. But I think we also have the tradition of, in this town, historically, of not financing abortions as part of government-funded health care.»

Hearing this, pro-choice activists are concerned. «We’re certainly worried,» says Marilyn Keefe, director of reproductive health programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families. «Abortion is basic healthcare for women. We’re worried about the possibility that existing coverage will be rolled back.»

Perhaps the Pope’s meeting with Obama had some good effect.

* * *

Robert Moynihan is founder and editor of the monthly magazine Inside the Vatican. He is the author of the book «Let God’s Light Shine Forth: the Spiritual Vision of Pope Benedict XVI» (2005, Doubleday). Moynihan’s blog can be found at He can be reached at:

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