Catholics never have easy work in U.S. politics. Neither political party espouses the full range of Catholic views, so we are always left with the harder task of pursuing common ground where we find it, working to expand it and speaking prophetic truths to power when our paths diverge.
So it is with the new administration. A panel met recently at the Life Cycle Institute of Catholic University to consider “The Obama Administration and the Catholic Social Agenda.” One team of experts had the harder tasks, discussing the new administration’s directions in domestic policy. While there is much common ground on areas like poverty relief, health care and the environment, President Obama has said he will work to reduce but not ban abortions. Catholics must also reduce abortions, while continuing to defend the lives of the unborn. This has been our work in the 36 years since Roe v. Wade, under both Democratic and Republican leadership, and it continues.
There is much to be hopeful about in foreign policy, so another pair of experts had easier work. “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” These words were President Obama’s, but they could just as easily have comefrom a statement of the U.S. Catholic bishops or the Vatican. In its first week, the new administration dramatically reversed U.S. foreign policy on the war on terror, torture, Iraq, diplomacy, climate change and the Middle East, bringing U.S. positions into close alignment with the moral concerns raised by the Catholic Church.
On torture, Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, chair of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Committee on International Justice and Peace, in collaboration with other religious leaders in the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, asked the new administration to issue an executive order renouncing torture, reaffirming U.S. compliance with the Geneva Conventions and treaties against torture, and requiring all U.S. government agencies to abide by the U.S. Army field manual interrogation techniques. President Obama fully complied. On Iraq, the Vatican and the U.S. Catholic Bishops, along with Obama, were among the first voices to decry the U.S. invasion of Iraq, noting that the optional war did not meet the strict criteria for a just war.
Today the Obama administration echoes the bishops’ call for a responsible transition in Iraq, bringing U.S. troops home in a manner ensuring the greatest safety and stability for all. President Obama is prioritizing arms control and nonproliferation, diplomacy, climate change and brokering peace in the Middle East, in conjunction with the suggestions of the church. These are vast areas of common ground that, in the words of Bishop Hubbard, “will help the United States to regain the moral high ground and restore our credibility within the international community at this critical time.”
There will be struggles ahead as well. Many Americans, and many in the peace community, will be surprised to learn that the new administration intends to nearly double U.S. forces in Afghanistan to over 60,000 troops, with the endgame still uncertain. The administration has revoked the “Mexico City” language that barred groups that counsel or practice abortion from receiving U.S. funds for overseas family planning programs.
As the world economy crumbles, church and state can most powerfully collaborate in protecting the poor caught in the jaws of the current financial crisis. In this manner, perhaps the visions of Benedict and Obama can coincide, to “become ministers of hope” for our communities and future generations. This may provide the most fruitful common ground between Benedict’s church and Obama’s state. Pope Benedict’s second encyclical, Saved by Hope (Spe Salvi, 2007), is titled after the words of St. Paul, that hope in Christ, hope in things unseen saves us both individually and as community. Obama’s memoir, The Audacity of Hope (2006), is titled after a homily reflecting on these words of Paul. Benedict and Obama reach many of the same conclusions, preaching against hope in false sources, hope in a narrow, individualistic sense alone and hope in political ideologies, and instead pointing to hope as that which mobilizes community action in service of God and others. We must till this common ground.