Obama at the Vatican: A Meeting of Symbolism, Not Substance

Earlier this week, in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict claimed that the church does not "interfere in any way in the politics of States." These words are especially pertinent for today's meeting between President Obama and the pope.

While both men are world leaders, the pope and the president maintain distinctly different roles as a religious leader and a political leader, respectively. We must be clear that the pope does not command the same type of global responsibility as a member of the Group of Eight, such as the United States, and to expect G8-type political outcomes from this meeting would be unrealistic and wrong.

Although Pope Benedict and President Obama play different roles in the world, there are undoubtedly valuable issues that the two men can and should discuss. Taking even a quick look at this week's encyclical, one will find many examples of the similar outlooks the two leaders share on issues pertaining to poverty, the rights of immigrants and the benefits of scientific progress. Both men strive for an end to both war and hunger. Both aim to safeguard the environment and protect religious freedoms. The pope may have the moral stature to promote these causes but the president has the political power to effect change at a policy level.

The common views the pope and president share affect the lives of people in the U.S. and around the world, especially those living in poverty. As such, it would be beneficial for them to discuss these issues. With wars abounding and financial crises overwhelming us, it is always positive when people of good will and good intent can agree, discuss and inspire one another to work even harder to better our world.

At their meeting, President Obama certainly need not lecture the pope about the inner workings of the Catholic church. It is a widely known fact that Catholics the world over disagree with the dictates of the Vatican on issues pertaining to sexual and reproductive health and rights. Catholics must let the pope and other members of the church hierarchy know that the Vatican is out of touch, the teachings flawed and people suffer as a result. That message need not come from President Obama; rather, it is up to Catholics to raise these concerns.

In the same vein, Pope Benedict should not lecture the president about the needs of people in the U.S. This nation was founded by those who suffered from religious persecution and fled to America to be free to practice religion as they saw fit. It is therefore no surprise that the separation of church and state was and continues to be a cornerstone of U.S. democracy. Politics should not interfere with religion nor should religion interfere with politics. People of every religion and no religion should be equally represented; freedom of religion and freedom from religion must be guaranteed. With this in mind, the pope should not feel the need to lecture President Obama on matters of internal U.S. policy.

However, recent evidence suggests that the pope's claims that church does not "interfere in any way in the politics of States" are more than a little disingenuous.

In the United States alone, we have several examples. Take, for instance, when the U.S. bishops successfully lobbied to strip life-saving family planning measures from the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) bill. Moreover, the bishops continue to lobby for conscience clauses (or, more correctly, refusal clauses) that protect entire institutions-not individuals-and exclude abortion and contraception from healthcare reform. Both measures could limit access to vital reproductive healthcare services. These are all classic examples of how the pope, through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, interferes in U.S. politics.

When Pope Benedict and President Obama meet, the president should not tell the pope how to run his church nor should the pope tell the president how to run his country. In reality, this meeting is more about symbolism and respect for each other and the institutions they represent than anything else. As Pope Benedict is a religious leader and does not take on the responsibilities that President Obama has as a political leader, we cannot and should not expect any substantial outcomes. However, the two men can definitely discuss what they agree on and inspire one another to move forward doing good work.