When Pope Benedict XVI greets U.S. President Barack Obama at the Vatican on July 10, the symbolism and sheer star power of the encounter will keep the pundits chattering away. The photo op alone is worth a thousand words: the 82-year-old man in white, the world's most recognizable religious leader and head of its largest single denomination, comes face-to-face with the charismatic first black President of the world's last superpower. And the scheduling efforts of both the Vatican and the White House suggest a shared appreciation of the symbolic weight the first encounter between Obama and Benedict could carry.
It was confirmed last week that the two would meet during a highly unusual Friday, 4 p.m. slot, immediately after Obama finishes at the G-8 summit in Rome and prepares to depart for Ghana, Africa. Pontiffs almost always meet with visiting dignitaries before lunch, but that's not an option for Obama. And the fact that Benedict leaves Rome two days later for his summer holiday in the Italian Alps has some speculating that the Pontiff delayed his departure in order to be there when the new U.S. President comes to town.
Once they've allowed the photographers their opportunity, Benedict and Obama will speak alone and in private for what will likely be less than one hour. To paint the Obama-meets-Benedict dossier in broad strokes, says one senior Vatican diplomat, "it's basically the reverse of Bush." In other words, the Pope tends to appreciate the new President's less aggressive approach to foreign affairs, while he disagrees on ethical matters such as abortion rights and stem-cell research whereas President George W. Bush was seen by the Vatican as one of the few like-minded Western leaders on social issues, but whose invasion of Iraq was strongly opposed by the Vatican.
Some of the more zealous Catholic traditionalists, especially among American prelates, have been warning that an Obama presidency would expand abortion rights and deal other setbacks to traditionalist values. Former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, now a high-ranking Vatican official, went so far as to warn that the Democratic Party risks becoming a "party of death." And U.S. Catholics spent the past month arguing over whether the pro-choice Obama should have been invited to speak at the University of Notre Dame commencement.
The Vatican diplomat, however, said the Pope and his top aides view Obama as different from other Western leaders who challenge the church on social issues. "He's not Zapatero," said the source, referring to the series of landmark bills on gay rights passed by Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. "Obama's not motivated with hatred of Christianity or the Catholic Church."
And for each leader, being in the presence of the other could boost his own standing. Obama, whose strong showing with Catholic voters in November was a key to his victory, can pad his popularity on that front by meeting with the Pope, while Benedict's efforts to find his footing in global diplomacy could be helped by having a relatively like-minded partner in the White House.
Vatican sources expect Obama and Benedict to trade notes on the Middle East peace process, following the Pope's trip to the Holy Land in May and Obama's recent speech to the Muslim world. With the meeting expected to coincide with the upcoming publication of the Pope's third encyclical, which covers social and economic matters, we can be sure Benedict will ask Obama about the response to the financial crisis and how to build a more ethical brand of capitalism. After all, while the Pontiff is to the right of Obama on social issues and aligned with him on foreign policy, he actually lands quite often to the left of the American President on economic issues.