Vatican enters 2009 with ambivalence towards Obama

RomeĀ  - Outgoing US President George W Bush's visit to Rome in June culminated in talks with Pope Benedict XVI held in an unprecedented setting in the Vatican City's splendid gardens.

Many wandered what words were exchanged between the scholarly German-born head of the Roman Catholic Church and the Texas-raised US leader, a born-again Protestant Christian.

As it was, the occasion marked Bush's sixth papal meeting - including those with the late John Paul II - more than any other US president.

During Benedict's visit to the US in April, Bush hosted a birthday celebration for the pontiff on the White House lawns.

Unsurprisingly, under Bush's administration, Washington's relationship with the Holy See was cemented by a shared opposition to abortion, stem cell research involving human embryos and gay marriages.

Differences did exist however, most notably reflected by the Vatican's condemnation of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

More recently, though, the Vatican has spoken of the need to protect Iraq's dwindling Christian community from attacks by Muslim extremists - something that currently only the multi-national military force seems capable of doing.

But with newly-elected President Barack Obama moving into the White House next January, relations between the new US administration and the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy are bound to be a lot less cosy.

In fact, some commentators predict a situation worse than that of the Bill Clinton era when Washington and the Holy See clashed at international conferences over issues such as population growth and the use of condoms to combat the spread of HIV.

Obama's strong pro-choice stance on abortion riled several top US clerics during the presidential election campaign with the former Archbishop of St Louis, Raymond Burke, warning Democrats they risked becoming the "party of death".

And US-Vatican ties could sour further if Obama remains faithful to a campaign promise he made in 2007, when he said the "first thing" he'd do in office would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which would undo legislation that puts restrictions on access to abortions in the US.

"FOCA would have lethal consequences for prenatal human life... It would be an evil law that would further divide our country, and the church should be intent on opposing evil," said a statement released in by all US bishops after a conference in November shortly after Obama's election victory.

To date, most of the overt criticism aimed at Obama and his vice- president-elect Joe Biden - a Catholic, but pro-choice - has come from US clerics.

By contrast, Obama's election victory was greeted by Benedict in a telegram in which the pontiff recognized the "historic nature" of the African-American candidate's achievement, while assuring him of his prayers that God "would sustain you... to build a world of peace, solidarity and justice."

The telegram, and a telephone call of thanks from Obama a week later would seem to make a cordial prelude to the first expected meeting between the two - probably in July 2009 when Obama is scheduled to visit Italy to attend the Group of Eight (G8) summit.

But in recent, more pointed remarks, the Vatican's top health official Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, indicated the Church would vigorously take issue with anyone, US president included, advocating the use of embryos for stem cell research, a field of study supported by Obama.

Still, for all their differences on some important moral and ethical issues, Benedict and Obama do seem to share common ground on others.

The pontiff, who has repeatedly spoken out against the harmful exploitation of nature in the quest to obtain energy sources, will have welcomed Obama's pledge to reduce the superpower US's dependency on oil in favour of renewable forms of energy.

Benedict has also identified the root cause of the current global financial crisis as human greed and the "pointless" pursuit of money, and while Obama is certainly not about to jettison the US's capitalist economy, he is in favour of greater oversight and controls on markets, something Bush-style Republicans opposed. (dpa)