Is Obama More Catholic Than the Pope?

Tomorrow Pope Benedict XVI and President Barack Obama meet for the first time, an affair much anticipated and in some circles frowned upon by American Catholics in the wake of Obama's controversial Notre Dame commencement speech in May. Conservatives in the church denounced Obama's appearance as a nod by the premier Catholic university to a conciliatory politics that heralds the start of a slippery moral slope.

In truth, though, Obama's pragmatic approach to divisive policy (his notion that we should acknowledge the good faith underlying opposing viewpoints) and his social-justice agenda reflect the views of American Catholic laity much more closely than those vocal bishops and pro-life activists. When Obama meets the pope tomorrow, they'll politely disagree about reproductive freedoms and homosexuality, but Catholics back home won't care, because they know Obama's on their side. In fact, Obama's agenda is closer to their views than even the pope's.

It's fitting that Obama's visit comes just days after the publication of "Charity in Truth," a Vatican encyclical that declares unions, regulation of capitalism's excesses, and environmentalism to be ethical imperatives. The document gives moral credence to Obama's message and to progressive politics writ large.

Even more intriguing is the pope's support for political activism, which he refers to in the encyclical as "the institutional path … of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly." As a member of a family that preached that politics is an honorable profession, I see that he is opening the church to roles that for too long have been neglected. Here Obama (the community organizer from Chicago) could teach the pope a lot about politics—and what a Catholic approach to politics could entail. They agree, too, on poverty and Middle East peace. So far so good on papal-presidential concordance.

But there they part ways. Politics requires the ability to listen to different points of view, to step into others' shoes. Obama might call it empathy. While the pope preaches love, listening to the other has been a particular stumbling block for the Catholic hierarchy (as it is for many in power). The hierarchy ignores women's equality and gays' cry for justice because to heed them would require that it admit error and acknowledge that the self-satisfied edifice constructed around sex and gender has been grievously wrong. Before he became John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla had a telling all-or-nothing formulation: "If it should be decided that contraception is not an evil in itself then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit is on the side of the Protestant Churches."

That attitude has resulted in some heinous decisions. Most famously, in the lead up to the encyclical "Humanae Vitae" in 1968, an advisory body of theologians and laity empaneled by the pope advised that the church should reverse its position on birth control and concede that the issue should be a question for morality and for science. But authority—not truth, not love—prevailed: Pope Paul VI, listening to the advice of Wojtyla, disagreed with the majority of these advisers, who had voted 69 to 10 for change, fretting that to change this position would weaken his authority.

In the same vein, American bishops in the 1970s struggled to produce a paper that would address the concerns of women. After nine years of effort, they gave up. Why? According to Bishop P. Francis Murphy, bishops see themselves as "teachers, not learners: truth can not emerge through consultation." Pope Benedict, having lived in the safety and security of the Vatican for much of his professional life, is part of this culture that silences dissent. (His last job was as the enforcer of doctrine.)

In 1979, Sister Theresa Kane, the head of the Sisters of Mercy and the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, greeted Pope John Paul II on his first visit to the United States by proposing that the Church provide "for the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our Church," including the priesthood. This was greeted with revulsion at the Vatican, which insists that the only people who can represent God in the priestly role are those with male sex organs.

Yet polls bear out that American Catholics do not want to be told by the Vatican how to think. Despite the rhetoric of love and truth, the Vatican shows disdain (if not disgust) toward gays. But 54 percent of American Catholics find gay relationships to be morally acceptable, according to a 2009 Gallup poll. Meanwhile, against all scientific evidence and protestations from clergy on the ground, the pope claims that condoms aggravate the spread of AIDS. Seventy-nine percent of American Catholics disagree, according to a 2007 poll by Catholics for Choice.

When Sen. John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic, ran for president in 2004, several bishops decided to deny him communion. A poll done at the time by Time magazine showed that 73 percent of American Catholics disagreed with that decision, and 83 percent said the bishops' move wouldn't change their vote. In fact, more than two thirds said the church shouldn't try to influence the way Catholics vote at all or tell candidates—even Catholic ones—what stance to take.

For Obama, respectful disagreement and a willingness to recognize differences was the animating spirit of the presidential campaign, and it was central to his Notre Dame speech. That is the kind of politics many Catholics practice. They're tired of watching the church grasp frantically for control at the expense of truth and love. In America last November, it showed: 54 percent of Catholics voted for Obama.

Notre Dame awarded the president an honorary degree because it saw the need to highlight the best of Catholic teaching as applied to politics: the ability to open the eyes of those who would prefer to keep them closed, and to open the hearts of those who would prefer not to know the pain that their actions cause. The pope has a lot to learn about Catholic politics in America. Barack Obama can teach him.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, is author of Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Are Mixing God With Politics and Losing Their Way.

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