Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Shape of Things to Come

From Rome, CNS uber-scribe John Thavis examines the Vatican's mind on the new administration:
In interviews over recent weeks, Vatican officials said their expectations were highest on international questions of war and peace -- most specifically, the Israeli-Palestinian war, which a Vatican official once termed "the mother of all conflicts."

What is expected of the Obama administration, they said, is a decisive initiative to restart the peace process and move it toward a definitive solution, not a one-shot attempt but a "consistent commitment" to lead Israelis and Palestinians to the realization that a settlement is in their own best interests.

Vatican diplomats were disappointed at the Bush administration's peace-promoting efforts in the Holy Land. They said those efforts came late and that the most promising initiative -- the peace conference in Annapolis, Md., in late 2007 -- was not followed up with diplomatic pressure.

While no one expects Obama to alter the United States' fundamental support for Israel, Vatican officials said the new president begins his term with a certain amount of trust and sympathy among Arabs. That could be important, they said, because Arabs need to feel they have a world leader who takes their situation to heart....

The Vatican always was uncomfortable with the Bush administration's self-proclaimed "war on terrorism," even though officials gave qualified support to U.S. military action against terrorist enclaves in Afghanistan in 2001. Vatican sources said the hope is that the anti-terrorism effort under Obama will be carried out with two principles in mind: first, respect for legal rights, i.e., a rejection of torture; and, second, attention to the underlying causes of terrorism, including injustice and political frustration.

On economic issues, Vatican officials cited potential areas of agreement with Obama, including his concern for those on the margins of society. The hope, they said, is that the president's stated concern for the poor in the United States will translate into a serious U.S. commitment to help alleviate global poverty. This was an important area of cooperation with the Bush administration, and the Vatican wants it to continue under Obama.

Asked about pro-life issues, on which Obama and the Catholic Church have clear differences, Vatican officials took a wait-and-see attitude. They said they shared the immediate concern of U.S. church leaders that Obama may restore federal funding for nongovernmental family planning programs that offer abortion outside the United States and lift the Bush administration's limit on the funding of embryonic stem-cell research.

But on Inauguration Day, there was a strong hope at the Vatican that Obama, who is seen as an intelligent politician, would not pick unnecessary fights with the church. As a sign of just how closely the Vatican was watching the president's words and deeds and how willing it was to accentuate the positive, one official who follows pro-life questions said he was encouraged that in his inauguration address Obama didn't mention anything about these hot-button issues.

"He did mention parents who nurture their child. Now that's a very pro-life statement," he said....

[T]he Vatican is closely watching for Obama's choice of a new U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. An early appointment would be viewed at the Vatican as a sign of the president's interest and attention to the Holy See.

The choice of ambassador is, of course, up to the president. One informed Vatican official dismissed an earlier report that the Vatican, in a nod toward conservative Catholics, might veto the appointment of a high-profile Catholic supporter of Obama [i.e. Doug Kmiec]. Rejecting an ambassador for those kinds of political motives is not in the tradition of Vatican diplomacy and would, in fact, be very dangerous, the official said.

Many at the Vatican are already looking ahead to an expected meeting between Obama and Pope Benedict later this year. Although the Vatican understands that the young president has a lot on his plate as he comes into office, they are eager to see him in Rome. Asked when he hoped it would happen, one Vatican official said, "As soon as possible."
Meanwhile, today's executive order banning "harsh interrogations" of terror suspects has already been praised by the US bishops' top foreign-policy hand:
An executive order banning torture signed by President Barack Obama was welcomed by Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

“Based upon the teachings of the Catholic Church, our Conference of Bishops welcomes the executive order,” Bishop Hubbard said. “Together with other religious leaders, we had pressed for this step to protect human dignity and help restore the moral and legal standing of the United States in the world.”

He added: “A ban on torture says much about us – who we are, what we believe about human life and dignity, and how we act as a nation.”

In their November 2007 document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. bishops declared that “direct assaults on innocent human life and violations of human dignity, such as genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified” (No. 23). The bishops asserted: “The use of torture must be rejected as fundamentally incompatible with the dignity of the human person and ultimately counterproductive in the effort to combat terrorism” (No. 81).

In September 2007 Pope Benedict XVI, echoing the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, said “[T]he prohibition against torture ‘cannot be contravened under any circumstance.’”