Why the Vatican Likes Obama

In the weeks leading up to President Obama's May appearance at the University of Notre Dame, almost 80 AmericanCatholic bishops, in response to his pro-choice stance on abortion, voiced their disapproval of the honorary degree being bestowed upon him. If the bishops of Obama's own electorate were that harsh, you'd expect the Curia at the Vatican, the church bedrock where the president will meet Pope Benedict XVI tomorrow, to distance themselves from him furiously.

That expectation would be wrong. President Obama is much more popular at the Vatican than he is with the most vocal American bishops. American monsignori in Vatican City "are all Fox News, Bush-loving Republicans," a Vatican reporter told me on the condition that I not use his name and harm his access. "The Italians, however, are another story. They love Obama." Indeed, most Vatican officials are just as excited to meet the new president as their secular counterparts have been elsewhere in Europe.

One reason church officials swoon for the president like their counterparts across European capitals is that the Monsignori often come from the same families as those who work in high civil-government offices. They consult the same magazines and newspapers. They attend the same boarding schools and universities. They even vacation at the same resorts. The view from Rome and the view from Brussels are similar on most issues of international importance.

These familial and intellectual connections are usually opaque to outsiders, but now and then an event highlights the bonds. The 2005 funeral of an Italian intelligence officer killed in Iraq was presided over by a high-ranking and long-serving Vatican official, Msgr. Maurizio Calipari. The spy was named Nicola Calipari, and the monsignor was his brother. Nicola was mistakenly shot by an American, which simultaneously amplified the hostility Europeans felt toward the American invasion and confirmed for the Curia their suspicion of force—a sentiment dating back as far as the fifth-century writings of St. Augustine, whose just-war theory bars aggression and "preventive" war. Benedict is a longtime and serious scholar of Augustine's writings.

Obama's cosmopolitanism is a source of derision on Fox News, but Europeans, whose nationalisms caused a century of upheaval, have gone so far as to exchange their state currencies for the euro. For the Catholic Church, which is older than the nations and has a longstanding commitment to transnational organizations (reaffirmed this week in Benedict's encyclical Caritas in Veritate), Obama's rejection of unilateralism is a source of optimism.

The Vatican is also relieved by Obama's pragmatic stance toward Latin America—even where lefty pols, such as those in Venezuela and Cuba, scorn America. The Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, is a Salesian, an order of priests deeply involved in the continent. Bertone oversees the Vatican daily newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, whose favorable coverage of Obama some American Catholics have criticized. The newspaper even applauded his speech at Notre Dame. The Vatican has a broader vision and a wider set of concerns than, say, the Archbishop of Denver.

What about abortion? Of course, the pope and curial officials oppose abortion as much as the American bishops. But in Europe, where the culture is far more secular, there is simply no hope for overturning liberal abortion laws, and the clergy have reconciled themselves to that fact.

Obama and Benedict have wildly different intellectual backgrounds, and although both are "world leaders," the nature of their jobs could scarcely be more different. Obama is smart about things that do not concern the pontiff, and Benedict is wise about things unfamiliar to a liberal Protestant like the president. They will find points of policy agreement in terms of searching for peace in the Mideast, increasing aid to the Third World, and promoting environmentalism. But while it's true they'll never agree about reproductive freedom, the pope will greet Obama warmly and smile at his children. Behind him, bishops and cardinals will be jockeying for a chance to shake the president's hand. And back home in America, those conservative Catholics who have been spewing vitriol at Obama will really be gnashing their teeth.

Why the Vatican Likes Obama | U.S.