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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority


As E.J. Dionne has tartly pointed out, a high Roman Catholic official is about to risk “legitimizing” Barack Obama with a meeting on Friday. But there won’t be any right-wing Catholic demonstrations against this “outrage,” because the official in question is Pope Benedict XVI. Furthermore, notes Dionne:

[W]hether he is the beneficiary of providence or merely of good luck, Obama will have his audience with Benedict just three days after the release of a papal encyclical on social justice that places the pope well to Obama’s left on economics. What a delightful surprise it would be for a pope to tell our president that on some matters, he’s just too conservative.

The papal document in question, Caritas in Veritate, appears to represent something of a twenty-first century updating of “social encyclicals” like Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio, which certainly offended many conservative Catholics in their own time.
Far be it from me to offer an explication of this densely constructed 45-page encyclical. But the reaction of Catholic conservative intellectual George Weigel is worth reading. He views Caritas in Veritate as an impure compromise between the kind of sound thinking he associates with Joseph Ratzinger (good) and the inveterate leftism of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (bad). Suffice it to say that Dionne’s right: if you turned the more purely economic sections of Caritas in Veritate into an American-style campaign document, it would be denounced by conservative Catholic Republicans as the worst kind of socialism. Via the AFL-CIO’s blog, here’s a section of the encyclical that practically sounds like an endorsement of card-check:

Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level.

Certainly Benedict XVI has bigger fish to fry than the arguments of American Catholics over American politics. But as Dionne points out, the Vatican has already shown a strong antipathy to the demands of conservatives that it go fully partisan in U.S. politics:

The Vatican press has been largely sympathetic to Obama, and in a recent article, Cardinal Georges Cottier, who was the theologian of the papal household under Pope John Paul II, praised Obama’s “humble realism” on abortion and went so far as to compare the president’s approach to that of St. Thomas Aquinas. (Pray this won’t go to Obama’s head.)
No one pretends that the Vatican is at peace with Obama’s views on the life issues, and Benedict mentioned the church’s resistance to abortion at three different points in this week’s economic encyclical, “Charity in Truth.”
But the pope and many of his advisers also see Obama as a potential ally on such questions as development in the Third World, their shared approach to a quest for peace in the Middle East, and the opening of a dialogue with Islam.
The Vatican’s stance and the broadly positive response to Obama’s Notre Dame speech have at least temporarily quelled the vocal opposition to the president among more conservative American bishops. Now, parts of the hierarchy are working closely with the administration on health care reform, immigration and climate change legislation.

So the effort to mobilize American Catholics against Obama that fizzled at Notre Dame is not getting any help from the Vatican, which has its own and much broader priorities.

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