Pope gives a nod to Obama

ROME  — With leaders of the G8 countries here to discuss a reeling global economy, the Holy See released Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical, “Love in Truth.”

Calling “food and access to water” basic human rights, the 144-page document entreats developed countries to end hunger “for safeguarding the peace and stability of the planet.”

In a step beyond Pope John Paul II’s famous criticisms of unbridled capitalism, Benedict  advocates “a worldwide redistribution of energy resources” to assist the poorest countries. Although the letter provides no specifics on how “the assistance of advanced technology” should work, the pope — in language likely to rankle conservative Catholics — echoes President Obama’s insistence on environmental safeguards and a smaller carbon footprint as an ethical responsibility.

“The entire human family must find the resources to live with dignity, through the help of nature,” the papal letter asserts. “We must recognize our grave duty to hand the earth on to future generations in such a condition so that they too can worthily inhabit it and continue to cultivate it.”

The letter strongly reiterates church opposition to abortion and birth control devices. But the progressive tone in long passages concerned with human rights and poverty offers a nod toward the new U.S. administration, days after President Barack Obama in a meeting with Catholic journalists at the White House stressed the need to find common ground where possible.

Benedict and Obama are scheduled to meet July 10 at the Vatican.

Each stands to gain with a constituency not traditionally his own: the president with Catholics, and the pope with Western policymakers grappling with the economic downturn. With them, Benedict has upped the ante by calling on redistribution of oil-and-gas resources to Third World countries.  

The president’s high approval ratings and adroit presence on the world stage stand in contrast to Benedict’s papacy, which has made mistakes of a kind rarely seen in the media age.

The Pope recently issued a rare apology for having reinstated an excommunicated bishop from the break-away Society of Pius X sect who scoffed at the existence of the Holocaust. He was subsequently removed again.

Although Benedict has gone farther than John Paul in dismissing dozens of pedophiles from the priesthood, he took a soft-glove approach to Father Marciel Maciel Degollado in 2006, ending the public ministry of a priest long shadowed by pedophilia charges, only to see Maciel’s religious order, the Legionaries of Christ, portray the founder on their website as falsely-accused, a future saint. The Vatican failed to specify what Maciel had done to warrant his punishment. He died in 2008. In February, the Legion revealed that he had a grown daughter. The Vatican ordered an investigation of the order itself which is now underway.

Several days ago the pope sent a telegram to the disgraced Polish Archbishop Julius Paetz of the Poznian diocese, who was forced out of public duty in 2002 by John Paul II after numerous complaints of sexual abuse by seminarians. Benedict congratulated Paezt for his “fruitful service” to the church on the 50th anniversary of his ordination.

“Guiding your sheepfold, you gave a testimony of faith in the resurrection of Christ which drove all fear away,” the pope declared.

His scandal had driven Paetz from public view. “The archbishop, now 74, has attended several recent audiences with Pope Benedict in Rome where he has a luxury apartment,” reported The Tablet, an English Catholic biweekly, on July 4.

By helping Paetz rehabilitate his career, Benedict sends a contradictory signal after his apology to priest abuse victims in America last year.

In “Love in Truth,” Benedict asserts that declining birth rates — a clear reference to Western Europe — has caused “strain on social welfare systems, increases their cost, eats into savings ... and narrows the ‘brain pool’ upon which nations can draw for their needs.”

The pope calls for a heightened ethical dimension to corporate life, and stronger partnerships with governments  and public charities with greater transparency on budgets for aid programs and in social safety nets.

Although “Love in Truth” has been in the works for several months, the release is clearly timed to assert a role for the Holy See in public debate on themes staked out by the G8 leaders.

With outsourcing jobs in mind, the letter states: “Business management cannot concern itself only with the interest of the proprietors, but must also assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business.”

The encyclical hop-scotches over vast areas of economics and morality, as when one page reflects on access to education as a basic right, and the next reflects upon international tourism that “follows a consumerist and hedonistic pattern, as a form of escapism planned in a manner typical of the countries of origin.”

Although the breadth of Benedict’s concerns is striking, his thematic lens comes back, time and again, to the morality of economic imbalance. In a swipe against subprime loans, he writes: “The weakest members of society should be helped to defend themselves against usury, just as poor peoples should be helped to derive real benefit from micro-credit, in order to discourage the exploitation.”

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