The day after Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, hailed his election as a “choice that unites,” exemplifying America’s ability to “overcome fractures and divisions that until only recently could seem incurable.” Pope Benedict XVI sent the president-elect a congratulatory telegram the same day, noting the “historic occasion” of his election.
Four years later, the Vatican’s reaction to Obama’s re-election had a markedly different tone.
“If Obama truly wants to be the president of all Americans,” said L’Osservatore Nov. 7, “he should finally acknowledge the demands forcefully arising from religious communities — above all the Catholic Church — in favor of the natural family, life and finally religious liberty itself.”
Speaking to reporters the same day, the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, voiced hope that Obama would use his second term for the “promotion of the culture of life and of religious liberty.”
The statements alluded to Obama policies favoring legalized abortion, same-sex marriage and a plan to require nearly all health insurance plans, including those offered by most Catholic universities and agencies, to cover sterilizations and contraceptives, which are forbidden by the church’s moral teaching.
The insurance mandate in particular, which U.S. bishops have strenuously protested for the past year, has proven an even greater source of division between the church and the Obama administration than their previous disagreements and threatens to aggravate tensions between Washington and the Vatican during the president’s second term.
From the beginning of Obama’s presidency, his support for legalized abortion and embryonic stem-cell research inspired protests by the church and controversy within it. Some 80 U.S. bishops publicly criticized the University of Notre Dame for granting Obama an honorary degree in 2009.
Yet the Vatican itself remained largely aloof from such disputes, at least in public statements, and cooperated with the Obama administration on such common international goals as assisting migrants, working against human trafficking and preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS.