Aug 262009

Father Richard McBrien wonders why the lack of fuss over Pope Benedict XVI’s private audience with President Obama, given all the fuss over his commencement address at Notre Dame. Giving a political speech is very different from an audience with the Holy Father.

President Obama delivering a prepared speech in front of a large assembly communicates in an unequal, one-way fashion. The listeners are passive spectators. They listen politely to his carefully crafted words. From his position of honor on the stage above his listeners, his statements are received unquestioned. An audience with Pope Benedict XVI likewise is an honor, but it is face-to-face.  It is an unscripted, active, two-way conversation. It offers opportunities to reinforce common ground and gives the Holy Father a chance to challenge and correct misunderstandings.

The honorary degree bestowed on President Obama at Notre Dame implies that his beliefs are acceptable to Catholics. The honor which comes from an audience with the pope carries with it questions and challenges. After the pope’s meeting with U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi last February, we saw that he is not afraid of confronting powerful politicians, and, indeed, gave to the president the document “Dignitas Personae,” which outlines what “pro-life” means to Catholics. No such feedback came from his speech at Notre Dame.

Now, we know that our president requested the audience as a smart political move, but we hope that he appreciated this rare opportunity to seek advice from a great spiritual leader. We should pray that Pope Benedict received President Obama with a perceptive spirit and that the president was open to the words of the Holy Father.

Roy Doorenbos

St Mary’s Parish, Grinnell

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