Now, the meeting probably started with some pleasantries and maybe even some humor. Perhaps with the President's telling the Pope: “Man, after watching Angels and Demons, I thought you might not make it to the office today.” And the Pope's responding with “I'll trade you some red shoes for those $600 sneakers your wife likes to wear.” Clearly the meeting eventually progressed to something more along the lines of, “I'm troubled by your positions on embryonic stem cell research and abortion. What part of 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' do you not understand?”
Whether he wants to hear it or not, President Obama needs some basic formation in reason and the moral law. And Pope Benedict is just the man for the job. Obama has stated often his appreciation for the social justice legacy of the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. However, the President clearly has spent little time understanding the moral reasoning behind that social justice agenda. He understands the what but not the why .
The why of social justice begins with the dignity and value of the individual. With the conviction that each person's life has meaning because each person is made in the image of God. That principle undergirds the very Western society in which we live and take for granted. That principle explains why America fails to limit its compassion to its own citizens but rather extends compassion and aid to people all over the world. A human being is a human being, regardless of race or location.
So it did my heart good to witness the Pope's handing the President a pamphlet explaining the Vatican's moral reasoning behind its opposition to embryonic stem cell research and abortion. For these two issues are no more separated from other issues of social justice than Chrysler is now separated from Fiat. They all emerge from the fundamentalwhy: the dignity and value of each individual.
The White House staff anticipated that the two men would have “frank” conversation in their meeting. President Obama, of course, recited his usual mantra about seeking to “reduce” the number of abortions in America. A cynic would ask why he then seeks to increase funding for such procedures while simultaneously removing any restrictions on them whatsoever. However, the key point about Obama's mantra is its inconsistent moral reasoning. Why would one want to “reduce” the number of abortions if they are morally acceptable? On the one hand, he insists on the morality of abortion; on the other hand, he issues empty, warmed-over sentiments about wanting to reduce them. The two positions cannot co-exist. It is one or the other.
Pope Benedict has now explained in person the moral reasoning that President Obama is lacking. He has followed it up with written teaching for the President to read on the plane trip home. Since the Obamas have chosen to make Evergreen Chapel at Camp David their official church home, where the chaplain has little or no interaction with the President (and did not with President Bush before him), perhaps the Pope can take on the role of occasional spiritual director for Mr. Obama. The President is clearly a bright man, but we all need a dose of “smallness” now and then. And in the end, it will serve him well to remember that God's Law trumps Harvard Law every time.