Only three people have I ever met in person and felt small. Humility is not my greatest strength, but three people each had something about them that reminded me of my many inadequacies. And that is a good thing.
Coach Owenby, my school days basketball coach, had that intimidating testosterone physical presence and demeanor. He simply commanded respect. The ever-present chew of tobacco in his cheek heightened the intimidation. I felt very small in his presence every day.
Professor Meeks, my dissertation advisor, had a similar effect on me but for different reasons. His breadth of reading and his mind simply left me feeling inadequate each time I met with him, not because he tried to but because I realized how woefully ill-prepared I was for the work at hand. He also was incredibly quiet and mild-mannered, traits which only made me more nervous as I struggled to fill the air with words and conversation. Intimidation rained down on me.
Cardinal Ratzinger was the third. Our group of students got a rare privilege of a private audience with the Cardinal when we visited Rome in 1994. He and his staff hosted us for an hourlong reception in a parlor adjacent to his office. His presence could be summed up in one word: gravitas. The man's intellect, his experience, and his devotion to the Church made me feel small in comparison. His gravitas, saturated with an oddly soft grace, left a lasting impression on me.
I wonder how President Obama felt on Friday when he met Pope Benedict XVI (formerly Cardinal Ratzinger) in person. The President does not strike me as one who feels small very often. Frankly, he comes across as one who resists recognizing his own inadequacies as evidenced by the multiplicity of mammoth initiatives he is putting forth all at the same time (from nationalized universal health care, to “re-setting” America's international image, to reforming financial markets, to “saving” the automobile industry, to borrowing and spending at a record level in the name of “stimulus,” just for starters). The breadth and urgent pace of his agenda has led some of his most passionate supporters, like Colin Powell, to caution him about the dangers of trying to do too many large things at once. A feeling of inadequacy seems to be the least of our President's interests.
So, my hope is that Obama's meeting with the Pope accomplished at least one thing: to make our President feel small, if only for a moment. An occasional dose of our own mortal inadequacy is healthy for us all. It keeps things in perspective.
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 fundamental why: 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.