Though Barack Obama won't be announcing his foreign travel plans anytime soon, it's a good bet that the new U.S. President will meet Pope Benedict XVI sometime next year, perhaps in early July to coincide with the G-8 summit in Italy. It promises to be one of the great photo ops of 2009. Benedict sent a personal message to Obama the day after his victory, which referred to the "historic occasion" of his coming presidency; Obama subsequently telephoned the Pope as part of a round of calls to world leaders.
But well before the two men have their historic handshake, the ground is already shifting underneath U.S.-Vatican relations. After the Bush Administration, the election of a pro-choice, pro-diplomacy Democratic President is changing the Vatican's game plan vis-à-vis Washington on several levels. Bush was viewed in Rome as a rare ally in the West for his opposition to such issues as abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research. And the first issue to watch is abortion. (See a map showing the new fronts in the U.S. abortion battle.)
The Pope's top aides may have already informed Benedict about a campaign promise Obama made on July 17, 2007, to Planned Parenthood, stating that his first act as President would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would undo legislation that put restrictions on access to abortions. Some Catholics have warned that such a decree, which would essentially codify Roe v. Wade into federal law, could force doctors in Catholic hospitals to perform abortions against their conscience. "There's more fear here than wrath," a senior Vatican official told TIME with regard to the Catholic hierarchy's attitude toward Obama. However, if Obama signs the Freedom of Choice Act in his first months in office, "it would be the equivalent of a war," says the same official. "It would be like saying, 'We've heard the Catholic Church and we have no interest in their concerns.' " U.S. Catholic bishops at a meeting in Baltimore last week vowed to take on Obama for his support of abortion rights; they are also skeptical about his assurances to try to reduce the number of abortions while supporting the right to choose.
Even before the election, Democrats were warned not to risk becoming the "party of death," according to former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke. It was Burke who famously pledged in 2004 to deny communion to the pro-choice Catholic presidential candidate John Kerry. The archbishop has since been promoted to Rome as head of the Holy See's equivalent of a Supreme Court. Meanwhile, in response to a question last week on Obama's pledge to reverse Washington's policy on stem-cell research, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, who heads the Vatican office for health, made it clear that the church will not shy away from the debate. "What builds up man is good, what destroys him is bad," he told reporters, arguing that one human being should never become a material resource for the betterment of another.
Nevertheless, 54% of U.S. Catholic voters supported Obama, who is Protestant. That may give him the cover to move ahead with his pledges. An added twist to the Obama Administration will be its pro-choice Catholic Vice President, Joe Biden. Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, Pa., hometown of Biden, told his fellow bishops last week, "I cannot have a Vice Presidentelect coming to Scranton to say he's learned his values there when those values are utterly against the teachings of the Catholic Church." Another pro-choice Catholic, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, may be on the short list for the position of Secretary of Health and Human Services. Though there are plenty of pro-choice Catholic politicians in Western Europe, this issue tends to get played out more openly in the U.S., both because of the country's superpower status and its vocal traditionalist wing of the church.
Beyond bioethics, Vatican officials generally view the incoming Administration's economic and foreign policies as a marked improvement over the past eight years, which included vocal criticism from Rome over the war in Iraq and skepticism toward the unfettered capitalism preached by Republicans. The possibility of an open clash over abortion could squander the potential for the Vatican to work side-by-side with Washington on issues such as Middle East peace, human rights and environmental protection. It might also tighten the smiles when it's time for that first photo op.