Obama should ‘pick up the phone’ in U.S.-Vatican relations, John Allen says
President-elect Barack Obama / John Allen Jr.
President-elect Barack Obama / John Allen Jr.

.- Vatican expert John Allen has written an open letter to President-elect Barack Obama discussing how the U.S. government and the Vatican may best interact under an Obama administration. Warning him not to repeat the Vatican-snubbing mistakes of the Clinton administration, Allen advised the future president that enormous good may result from U.S.-Vatican cooperation.

Writing in his column for the National Catholic Reporter, Allen said it is clear the Vatican and the Obama White House will have “deep differences” over issues such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research, Allen said these points must not obscure “basic political realities.”

While the United States is strong in terms of “hard power” like military and economic might, Allen noted the Vatican is a global actor in terms of “soft power,” being able to motivate people on the basis of ideas and religion.

Citing Obama’s narrow loss among white Catholics, Allen indicated that good relations with the Vatican could be “smart politics” for his party. Further, the Vatican has a “centuries-old” diplomatic tradition of dealing with governments which disagree with the Church on certain matters.

“Vatican diplomacy typically strives to keep lines of communication open and to seek common ground. In other words, they’ll want to do business with you where they can,” Allen wrote.

Further, the Vatican is eager for good relations with the U.S. regardless of its government, admiring its “robust religiosity” and believing the nation is positioned to be the Vatican’s “most natural ally” in promoting religious freedom and human dignity worldwide.

Allen claimed that Obama’s policy positions on many points dovetail both with the diplomatic interests of the Vatican and with Catholic social teaching. He cited immigration, economic justice, peace, and environmental protection as obvious examples of convergence.

Vatican journalist John Allen also offered a cautionary tale concerning the treatment of Vatican ambassador Ray Flynn and Pope John Paul II under the Clinton administration.

“During the lead-up to the U.N. conference on population in Cairo in 1994, Pope John Paul II called Flynn to the Vatican on a Saturday morning to personally request a telephone conversation with President Clinton. Flynn relayed the request urgently to the White House that afternoon, and got no response,” he wrote.

After placing more failed calls, Flynn then flew to Washington where he was forced to wait outside Clinton’s office over a two day period.

“Finally,” Allen continued, “he was admitted to the White House’s pre-Cairo war room, where he was told by Assistant Secretary of State Timothy Wirth that ‘nobody is getting a chance to lobby the president on this one.’ Dumbfounded, Flynn explained that the Bishop of Rome is not a lobbyist, and that it would be seen as a profound act of disrespect if the president wouldn’t even get on the phone. After almost a week, Clinton finally agreed to take the pope’s call.”

These events showed the Clinton administration’s “basic disinterest” about the Vatican, which sometimes bordered on hostility.

“The result was that the U.S.-Vatican relationship during the Clinton years was more often defined by predictable differences than by imaginative areas of common purpose,” Allen’s open letter concluded, advising Obama even to initiate a conversation with the papacy himself.

“My advice is to get on the phone if the Pope calls,” Allen advised. “Better yet, initiate the conversation yourself. You might be surprised about where it goes.”

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