“Obama: Working with the Pope to Help the World.” This is the title of an interview with President Obama that appeared in the Italian Catholic paper Avvenire last week in anticipation of Obama’s meeting with Pope Benedict XVI tomorrow. According to the editorial director of Avvenire, Dino Boffo, the invitation came from the White House. As if reacting to recent criticisms of the Obama administration for planting questions during press conferences, the introduction to the interview stresses that the questions were not provided to the President in advance. In an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, editorial director Dino Boffo makes the same observation, while effusively praising the President for his “preparation,” “intelligence,” and “honesty.”
While acknowledging obvious differences on issues such as abortion and stem-cell research, in the Avvenire interview Obama chose to emphasize what he identified as the large areas of political agreement between him and the Pope: “from peace in the Middle East to the fight against poverty, from climate change to immigration.” Particular attention was given to the Middle East conflict and the supposed need for Israel to cease settlement construction in the West Bank in the interest of achieving a negotiated “two-state solution” with the Palestinians. Here is the relevant exchange:
Avvenire: During his recent trip to the Holy Land, the Pope spoke of a “just and lasting peace.” But the peace negotiations in the Middle East have come to a halt, in part because of the opposition of Israel to stopping the growth of settlements in the West Bank. How do you think you can convince the Jewish state to overcome this opposition and how do you intend to get negotiations restarted on the basis of the principle “two nations, two states” [due popoli, due Stati].
Obama: We have been very clear with the Israelis in insisting that the settlements should be stopped. But we know that this will not be easy for Israel, since the settlements have been going on for many years. Moreover, Prime Minister Netanyahu has to deal with a series of difficult political conditions in his own country. That said, the discussions that we are having with the Israelis are very constructive. On the other hand, it is not only Israel’s fault. The Palestinians have the responsibility of stopping the violence and the Arab countries in the region should understand that if Israel is called upon to take very difficult decisions, they should recognize that the Jewish state needs security like any other country. Without imposing a solution, what the United States can do is to hold up a mirror to both parties, in order to show them the consequences of their own actions. This is a subject that I am anxious to discuss with the Holy Father, who I believe shares my approach.
One other exchange will be of particular interest to the American public, since Obama’s response suggests that he opposes the death penalty. The question in fact concerned abortion and the “right to life.” Here is the exchange:
Avvenire: Some Catholics praise your contribution to promoting the theme of social justice; others criticize you for your positions on subjects related to life: from abortion to stem-cell research. Do you see this as a contradiction?
Obama: This tension in the Catholic world existed well before I got to the White House. When I first started to be interested in social justice, in Chicago, the Catholic bishops spoke of immigration, of atomic weapons [nucleare], of the poor, foreign policy. Then, at some point, the attention of the Catholic Church shifted toward abortion and this had the power to move opinion in both Congress and the country in the same direction. These are questions that I think about a lot, but it is not up to me to resolve such tensions. Nonetheless, I have seen how one could attempt to bring about a sort of reconciliation. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, whom I knew in Chicago, spoke clearly and explicitly of the defense of life. And he included under this head also the fight against poverty, child welfare, and the death penalty. I am continually inspired by this part of the Catholic tradition and it has had a considerable impact on my wife. At times, I think that it has gotten buried beneath the debate on abortion. I would prefer that it remains in the foreground in the national debate.
During the 2008 electoral campaign, Obama said that he supported the use of the death penalty in the case of the “most egregious” crimes.