Performance Issues

European secular liberals and certain people at the Vatican may not have many things in common, but there’s one thing they unquestionably do share: high hopes for the presidency of Barack Obama. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama was a reminder of that, as was an American archbishop’s published complaint around the same time regarding the pro-Obama slant of some elements at the Holy See.

I have no intention of rehashing the furor over the Nobel committee’s selection of Obama. Since this is the kind of simple, one-dimensional issue that media love to go on about, journalists have had great fun with it, pro and con. For my money, The Washington Post, a certified Obama supporter, got it right in calling the peace prize “odd” and remarking: “It is no criticism of Mr. Obama to note that, barely nine months into his presidency, his goals are still goals.” Enough said.

For people who’ve been confused by things happening at the Vatican since early this year, the Nobel committee’s action seemed eerily familiar in some respects. Vatican voices have hailed the American president for months, and it hasn’t always been easy to say just why.

First it was L’Osservatore Romano, the semi-official Vatican newspaper, then more recently Cardinal Georges Cottier, an elderly Swiss churchman who was official papal theologian under Pope John Paul. The newspaper and the cardinal publicly pinned high hopes on Obama in the absence of much real achievement and despite his well publicized support for legalized abortion.

Inevitably, this has had the look of policy. But if it’s that, the roots of such a policy on the part of the Holy See are not immediately clear. What exactly does the Vatican expect to get from Obama? An Israeli-Palestinian settlement? Meaningful steps toward nuclear disarmament? These surely are worthy goals, but other American presidents before now have pursued them, with limited success so far.

Note, though, that L’Osservatore Romano was critical of the Nobel to Obama. Perhaps earlier criticism has sunk in at its editorial offices.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver recently had the courage to stand up and say: Enough. In an article published in an Italian magazine, he took polite but strong exception to Cardinal Cottier’s dismissive view of Catholics who criticized Notre Dame University’s decision to give President Obama an honorary degree last spring. The critics included 80 bishops and some 300,000 American Catholics who signed petitions of protest.

Remarking that “the pastoral realities of any country are best known by the local bishops,” Archbishop Chaput said Catholic frustration with the university’s action in honoring Obama had nothing to do with “whether he is a good or bad man” and everything to do with his “deeply troubling views on abortion law and related social issues.”

Meanwhile, things are rapidly coming to a head in Congress over health care reform in general and the issue of abortion coverage in particular.

President Obama has promised that there will be no government funding of abortion and any reform program will include a conscience clause allowing abortion opponents to opt out. But the key legislative proposals in play at present provide for abortion funding and have no conscience clause.

Will Obama deliver on his promises or will he not? Time is running out. Maybe those Catholics who are eager to pay homage to our pro-abortion president—including those at the Vatican—should wait to see what actually happens. Unless, like the Nobel committee, they think promises without performance are good enough.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • Joe DeVet

    Will Obama deliver on his promises or not?

    Lest we get blue holding our breath, for those with eyes to see the answer is clear enough already.

    Because he has given no such promises about abortion funding or conscience clauses. What he has given us on these, and most of what else he has asserted about federalized health care (call it socialized medicine if you like) is lies, not promises.

  • noelfitz

    Traditionally Catholics have been loyal to the Holy See. The phrase “Roma locuta est, causa finita est” shows the belief of Catholics in the authority at the center of Catholicism. Rome’s decision was considered final.

    Thus I am concerned with this article, as it has an anti-Vatican slant.

    Are there many Catholics “who’ve been confused by things happening at the Vatican since early this year”?

    I read:
    “Inevitably, this has had the look of policy. But if it’s that, the roots of such a policy on the part of the Holy See are not immediately clear. What exactly does the Vatican expect to get from Obama? An Israeli-Palestinian settlement?”

    Does the author believe that the Holy See teaches ideas that have political aims rather than Jesus Christ and is motivated by secular, rather than religious, interests?

    I would like to hear from Mr Shaw about where he stands with regards to loyalty to the Pope, the hierarchy and the Holy See.

    Is it responsible of Catholic Exchange to discourage Catholic loyalty to the Church.

  • Joe DeVet

    noelfitz: may I comment?

    It seems to me that the key to your question about whether CE should run articles like this, which are “anti-Vatican” in some way, is whether the subject is doctrine itself or prudential judgments about how Catholic principles or doctrine should be applied.

    In a nutshell, I have never seen any evidence that CE supports an attitude contra doctrine itself. Quite the contrary, this site consistently supports the authentic deposit of the Catholic faith.

    In another nutshell, the article in question was on Catholic leaders’ comments on matters other than doctrine itself. One could say the comments were sort of how principles should be applied. Catholics in good faith can and do regularly disagree on such matters, as for example, those who support nationalized health care and those who oppose it–each based on a judgment of how Catholic principles ought to be applied in this case.

    Vatican officials and other leaders do this as well. When Obama is praised by a Catholic leader for receiving the Nobel prize, or is praised for certain of his aspirations, this represents a judgment about an application of principles. These judgments could be in error, but such errors do not themselves mean that the Catholic principles or doctrine behind the judgments are wrong.

    However, when a Vatican official or any Catholic leader makes such an error it does tend to undermine doctrine by “association.” For this reason, these leaders need to be very careful about their public pronouncements on “applications” of principle. For the same reason, when we see them in error on any of these public statements, it is beneficial to the Church to expose the error and call them to account.

    Praise for the Obama Nobel prize was an embarrassing mistake. Even many of Obama’s supporters recognized the prize as a sham. It was “an empty gesture given to emptiness” as one commentator put it. The Church looks foolish when one of its spokesmen participates in such foolishness, and we are right to rebuke the official who did.

    The others who express support for certain aspirant policies of Obama also goof, in my opinion. They may be enamored of his “peace and justice” persona, but when he spectacularly flouts the fundamental peace and justice principle, that is the right to life for each individual, such praise by a Catholic leader seems foolish as well. Given that Obama has not accomplished anything concrete in the peace/justice arena, the best we can say of such praise of him by Catholic leaders is that it is premature.

    In this light, Russell Shaw has contributed positively to the life of the Church by his criticism, and CE has done so as well, by posting the essay.