VATICAN CITY, VATICAN – JULY 10: US President Barack Obama (L) meets with Pope Benedict XVI in his library at the Vatican on July 10, 2009 in Vatican City, Vatican. Obama was meeting with The Pope for the first time as President following the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy. Getty Images
By Lorraine Woellert
President Barack Obama visits the Vatican today as a papal call for a new era of global economic justice has landed at the center of a U.S. political debate over the government’s reach into the economy.
U.S. labor unions and some Roman Catholic politicians are using a July 7 economic message from Pope Benedict XVI to push more financial-services regulation, expanded workers’ rights, limits on pollution and greater access to health care.
The Pope “has provided a road map for how we can move ahead to accomplish economic justice,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. She is a Catholic member of the House Democratic leadership who has a 100 percent rating from the Washington-based Americans for Democratic Action, which describes itself as the “nation’s oldest independent liberal political organization.”
DeLauro and Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts yesterday opened a campaign of Catholic Democrats called “Pope Greets Hope” to draw a link between Church doctrine and Obama’s policy agenda. Obama will discuss the pontiff’s economic message with the Pope today, said White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs.
The Pope’s 150-page encyclical to bishops, released to coincide with a meeting of the Group of Eight nations in Italy, urged leaders to create a “true world political authority” to give “real teeth” to global economic and financial regulatory institutions.
“Profit is useful if it serves as a means toward an end,” wrote Benedict, 82. “Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty.”
DeLauro, 66, likened Benedict’s views on capitalism “to what the president is trying to do domestically by prioritizing health-care reform, global warming and education.”
The economic-justice movement championed by many U.S. Catholics has its roots in the early 20th Century and aims to improve the plight of the neediest. It helped put Catholic voters behind Democrats for decades, starting with an allegiance to President Franklin Roosevelt during the New Deal.
Shift to Republicans
In the 1980s, the U.S. Church’s leaders began aligning with conservative Republicans on issues such as opposition to abortion, gay rights and stem-cell research.
Catholics make up about one-quarter of the U.S. adult population, according to the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In November, Obama received 54 percent of the Catholic vote, while the Republican candidate, Senator John McCain of Arizona, got 44 percent. A majority of Catholics backed President George W. Bush in 2004.
“The Catholic vote is the most important swing constituency today,” said Steven Wagner, who led Republican Party efforts to woo Catholics in the 2000 election.
Republicans have largely kept silent about the Pope’s encyclical. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who converted to Catholicism in March and this year called Obama’s policies “anti-Catholic values,” focused on social issues in an interview yesterday.
Democrats who support abortion rights “have so many issues to be defensive about that” using the Pope’s encyclical to buttress their position “verges on silly,” he said.
‘At Variance With the Teaching’
“Ask them on any of a half-dozen social issues where they stand, and on every one of them they’ll be at variance with the teaching of the Church,” Gingrich said.
Obama’s policies have been the focus of controversies involving Catholics several times since he took office. In May, his invitation to speak at the University of Notre Dame, near South Bend, Indiana, sparked protests because it occurred about the same time he lifted a ban on federal funding for abortion providers overseas. On July 6, Obama increased federal spending limits on embryonic stem-cell research, altering a Bush administration policy favored by many Catholics.
Some Catholic health-care providers said they are less inclined to support Obama’s effort to overhaul the U.S. health- care system because it includes a plan to weaken legal protections for medical workers who object to abortion or birth control. Catholic health-care providers, who provide about 15 percent of U.S. hospital beds, want to maintain a Bush-era “conscience clause” that shields those who refuse to perform the procedures.
Obama supporters said the Pope’s call for economic justice gives Democrats a chance to highlight the failings of the free- market ideals of the Republican Party.
The Service Employees International Union and other labor groups are using the encyclical to try to win support from Catholic senators such as Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana for a bill that would make it easier for unions to represent workers, said Mary Kay Henry, executive vice president of the 2 million-member SEIU.
The Pope “offers a much-needed reminder that to create an economy that works for everyone it is critical to protect workers’ fundamental right to join together,” said John Sweeney, president of the 11 million-member AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. federation.
Republican Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, a Catholic, said any effort by Democrats to use the Pope’s remarks to push their agenda would fail.
Most people “would rather go to work than be on welfare,” said Boehner, 59. “We think our economic agenda will do more for Americans.”