Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Pope, President at the Vatican: It’s Worth a Prayer

Note: First printed by Religion News Service.
By Sister Mary Ann Walsh

Thirty years ago the United States established diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Critics of the move fell into two camps. One worried that the Vatican would try to unduly influence the U.S., where anti-Catholicism lies barely beneath the skin. Indeed, Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. once called anti-Catholicism is “the deepest bias of the American people.” Poet Peter Viereck of Mt. Holyoke College called anti-Catholicism “the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals.”

Those in the other camp worried that the U.S. would try to unduly influence the Vatican. They complained, for example, that the U.S. would lobby the Vatican Pontifical Academy of Sciences to make them refrain from criticizing the now barely remembered Star Wars program, which the U.S. was promoting in the eighties as part of our national defense system.

The issues come to mind now, with the news that on March 27 Pope Francis and President Obama will meet at the Vatican, as have popes and presidents before them, even before formal diplomatic ties existed. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, met with Pope John XXIII, and President John F. Kennedy met with Pope Paul VI.

What can come of the top super power and top spiritual power coming together?

The Vatican brings moral suasion to the table. It raises concern for the human needs of people around the globe – people starving for lack of food, fighting dysentery for lack of clean water; people lacking for a homeland as war and forced migration drive them from their roots into nations ill-equipped or unwilling to shelter them.

The Vatican also holds honest broker status. With a Diplomatic Corps concerned more for human development than trade agreements and military build-up, the Holy See becomes the peacemaker who builds bridges between the United States and nations with which the United States barely speaks.

The Vatican offers a beacon of hope. It cannot promise legions of Swiss Guards as military advisers to bolster a nation’s armed forces, but it can urge nations, such as the United States, to tap into its well-known generosity, to defend the weak, and to promote human dignity. The United States brings material power to the table, a lot of it. The United States is generous – to a point. Right now our foreign aid budget is small – less than one percent of the federal budget. A mere one percent increase can mean provision of basic sustenance, such as food and water, for many more people.

Two smiling, confident and charismatic leaders will meet at the Vatican March 27. Face-to-face meetings always trump report-to-report encounters. Pope Francis will have the opportunity to touch the heart of President Obama. President Obama will have the opportunity to advise the leading churchman of what the Land of the Free can do to improve life for many more of humankind. Both Pope and President have hopes for the meeting, and given the will that exists, something good can come from it. It’s worth a prayer.

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