Prof. Kaveny on the Pope and the President

Author: Susan Good

Cathleen Kaveny scarf

M. Cathleen Kaveny, John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, addressed the question “Why does the American Catholic leadership seem to be focused on abortion, while the Vatican appears willing to view that issue as merely one among many on which to judge a political leader?” in a New York Times blog. The question was prompted by President Obama’s visit to the Vatican on July 10. Prof. Kaveny’s contribution is below. Her comments and those of three other bloggers—a priest, a journalist, and a policy analyst—can also be found at
By M. Cathleen Kaveny, Notre Dame Law School:

Pope Benedict XVI gave President Obama a cordial welcome at the Vatican on Friday — a welcome that seemed sharply to contrast with the cooler reception he received from some American Catholics since his election. Most recently, almost 80 bishops, about one-third of the episcopacy, argued that the University of Notre Dame ought not to have invited Mr. Obama to deliver its 2009 commencement address and receive an honorary degree, because he is pro-choice.

Pope Benedict, of course, is not pro-choice. So why the warm welcome? Despite their differences, the two men actually have a lot in common, as you can see if you compare the Pope’s recent encyclical on social issues, Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth) with the President Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame.

From different vantage points, they are both grappling with the same challenge: how to protect and promote human dignity in an era of increased globalization, how to work together to solve the problems like the worldwide economic crisis, global warming, and food insecurity.

Moreover, the Pope and the president agree that solving the problems is going to require both technical competence and moral wisdom: we need the contributions of both head and heart. Recognizing human dignity means that we can’t simply fix problems for other people – or other nations – without treating them as morally responsible agents. Third, both men emphasize finding common ground without shying away from the expression of clashing moral convictions.

In a recent article, Cardinal Georges Cottier, O.P., for many years the theologian of the papal househhold, approvingly observed that Mr. Obama refused to take a “clash of civilizations” approach in his relations with the Muslim world. Instead, he respectfully challenged all parties “to rediscover the core values and shared interests on which to build mutual respect and peace.” He noted that Obama clearly condemned terrorism, but also opened the way for a positive relationship with Islamic peoples and nations.

The Vatican, in my view, respects Mr. Obama as a man of moral seriousness, who in turn respects those who disagree with him on serious moral issues such as abortion. The efforts by politically conservative American Catholics like Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Robert George to portray Mr. Obama as a pro-abortion extremist may have persuaded some members of the American hierarchy. Judging by the Cottier article, however, the Vatican does not view him in such an unnuanced manner.

Cardinal Cottier is impressed by the fact that Mr. Obama recognizes the tragic nature of the abortion choice, and the fact that he is committed to finding ways to reduce the need for — and therefore the numbers of — abortions. He highlights that Mr. Obama is committed to protecting the consciences of healthcare workers who morally opposed to abortion.

I see basic differences between Pope Benedict’s approach and that of Mr. Obama’s American Catholic critics. He doesn’t put issues of economic security and life issues in different baskets. Both are questions of social justice, both pertain to the dignity of the human person, both have to be addressed together if human beings are to flourish. In contrast, some American Catholics seem to think that no other issue of justice can claim our attention until abortion is prohibited. They are culture warriors.

But Pope Benedict seems to believe that the best way to influence the moral thinking of other people is to build up a basis of trust and respect that will allow open and fruitful conversation on the important questions on which there is disagreement.

Kaveny is currently completing a book entitled “Prophetic Rhetoric in the Public Square: An Ethics of Discourse.”