Obama and the Pope: Symbolism, Not Substance

Jon O’Brien

Pope Benedict recently claimed that the church does not "interfere in any way in the politics of States."  However, recent evidence suggests that the pope's claims that church does not "interfere...in the politics of States" are more than a little disingenuous.

This article was originally published on Huffington Post.

Earlier this week, in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict claimed that the church does not "interfere in any way in the politics of States." These words were especially pertinent for Friday’s meeting between President Obama and the pope.

While both men are world leaders, the pope and the president maintain distinctly different roles as a religious leader and a political leader, respectively. We must be clear that the pope does not command the same type of global responsibility as a member of the Group of Eight, such as the United States, and to expect G8-type political outcomes from this meeting would be unrealistic and wrong.

Although Pope Benedict and President Obama play different roles in the world, there are undoubtedly valuable issues that the two men can discuss. Taking even a quick look at Caritas in Veritate, one will find many examples of the similar outlooks the two leaders share on issues pertaining to poverty, the rights of immigrants and the benefits of scientific progress. Both men strive for an end to both war and hunger. Both aim to safeguard the environment and protect religious freedoms. The pope may have the moral stature to promote these causes but the president has the political power to effect change at a policy level.

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The common views the pope and president share affect the lives of people in the US and around the world, especially those living in poverty. As such, it is beneficial for them to discuss these issues. With wars abounding and financial crises overwhelming us, it is always positive when people of good will and good intent can agree, discuss and inspire one another to work even harder to better our world.

President Obama need not lecture the pope about the inner workings of the Catholic church. It is a widely known fact that Catholics the world over disagree with the dictates of the Vatican on issues pertaining to sexual and reproductive health and rights. Catholics must let the pope and other members of the church hierarchy know that the Vatican is out of touch, the teachings flawed and people suffer as a result. That message need not come from President Obama; rather, it is up to Catholics to raise these concerns.

In the same vein, Pope Benedict need not lecture the president about the needs of people in the US. This nation was founded by those who suffered from religious persecution and fled to America to be free to practice religion as they saw fit. It is therefore no surprise that the separation of church and state was and continues to be a cornerstone of US democracy. Politics should not interfere with religion nor should religion interfere with politics. People of every religion and no religion should be equally represented; freedom of religion and freedom from religion must be guaranteed. With this in mind, the pope should not feel the need to lecture President Obama on matters of internal US policy.

However, recent evidence suggests that the pope’s claims that church does not "interfere in any way in the politics of States" are more than a little disingenuous.

In the United States alone, we have several examples. Take, for instance, when the US bishops successfully lobbied to strip life-saving family planning measures from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) bill in 2008. Moreover, the bishops continue to lobby for conscience clauses (or, more correctly, refusal clauses) that protect entire institutions-not individuals-and exclude abortion and contraception from healthcare reform. Both measures could limit access to vital reproductive healthcare services. These are all classic examples of how the pope, through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, interferes in US politics.

The reality is that this meeting is more about symbolism and respect for each other and the institutions they represent than anything else. As Pope Benedict is a religious leader and does not take on the responsibilities that President Obama has as a political leader, we cannot and should not expect any substantial outcomes. However, the two men can and should definitely discuss what they agree on and inspire one another to move forward doing good work.

Post-Meeting Update

The meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and President Obama was, by all accounts, cordial, despite the fact that the two men discussed many issues, some of which they agree about, others not.

According to the Vatican’s chief spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, their conversation started with “the defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one’s conscience,” and also encompassed a host of other topics including the Middle East peace process, the economic crisis, food security and immigration.

They are both men of principle who are convinced that the policies they support are the correct ones. While there are many issues on which they agree, it is refreshing to see that it is possible to have discussions about abortion and stem-cell research that do not descend into shrill protests. The pope and the president’s cordial meeting should be an example to the loud minority that opposed the very idea of Obama’s presence at the University of Notre Dame in the US earlier this year.

It is also very refreshing to hear that the pope acknowledged the importance of conscience in making decisions that have ethical and moral consequences. Catholic teachings place a high value on an individual’s conscience, and we hope that the reference to this teaching reminds the pope, the president and everybody else to respect the conscientious decisions of others.

Analysis Politics

Donald Trump and Mike Pence: The Anti-Immigrant Ticket

Tina Vasquez

“My greatest fear is that this ticket doesn’t seem to realize immigrants are actually an incredible resource that fuels our country," Wendy Feliz of the American Immigration Council told Rewire.

On Friday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump announced Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, giving legitimacy to concerns a Trump presidency would be anti-choice and decimate LGBTQ rights. As Rewire reported last week, Pence has voted against nondiscrimination efforts, signed a so-called religious freedom bill, opposed marriage equality, and attemptednumerous times—to defund Planned Parenthood, something Trump has promised to do if elected president.

But the two Republicans also have something else in common: They are brazenly anti-immigrant.

Despite a misleading article from the Daily Beast asserting that Pence has had a “love affair with immigration reform” and has “spent his political career decrying anti-immigrant rhetoric,” the governor’s record on immigration tells a different story.

Let’s take a look at Trump’s “xenophobic” and “racist” campaign thus far, and how closely Pence’s voting aligns with that position.

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Donald Trump

For months it seemed, Donald Trump’s talking points in the media rarely drifted away from anti-immigrant rhetoric. During his kickoff speech, he referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “killers” and in the months since, has promised to build a 2,000-mile-long wall along the United States-Mexico border to keep “illegals” out, a wall the billionaire has promised that Mexico will pay for.

Despite being called “racist” by members of his own party, Trump’s immigration plan is largely consistent with what many Republicans have called for: a larger border wall, increasing the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, requiring all U.S. companies to use E-Verify to check the immigration status of employees, increasing the use of detention for those who are undocumented and currently residing in the United States, and ending “birthright citizenship,” which would mean the U.S.-born children of undocumented parents would be denied citizenship.

Again, Trump’s proposed immigration policies align with the Republican Party’s, but it is the way that he routinely spreads false, damaging information about undocumented immigrants that is worrisome. Trump has repeatedly said that economically, undocumented immigrants are “killing us by “taking our jobs, taking our manufacturing jobs, taking our money.” 

Market Watch, a publication focusing on financial news, reported that this falsehood is something that a bulk of Trump supporters believe; two-thirds of Trump supporters surveyed in the primaries said they feel immigration is a burden on our country “because ‘they take our jobs, housing and health care.'” This, despite research that says deporting the 11 million undocumented immigrants who currently call the United States home would result in a “massive economic hit” for Trump’s home state of New York, which receives $793 million in tax revenue from undocumented immigrants. A recent report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy also found that at the state and local level, undocumented immigrants nationwide collectively pay an estimated $11.6 billion each year in taxes.

Trump has also been accused by Muslim Americans and members of the media of engaging in “reckless, dangerous Islamophobia” at every opportunity, using terrorist attacks to call for a ban on all Muslim immigration, while also using terrorism in a self-aggrandizing manner. In a statement released after the Pulse nightclub shooting, Trump said, “I said this was going to happen.”

These dangerous assertions that all U.S.-based Muslims are secretly harboring terrorists or that undocumented immigrants are killing “thousands of peoplea narrative he continued to push at the Republican National Convention by having the families of three Americans killed by undocumented people speak—can be deadly and inspire hatred and violence. This was made all the more clearer when in August 2015 two white brothers cited Trump when they urinated on and beat a homeless Latino man. According to Huffington Post, the men “alegedly [sic] told police they targeted the man because of his ethnicity and added, ‘Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.’” Trump’s response? He said that his supporters are simply “passionate” people who want America “to be great again.”

Mike Pence

Wendy Feliz, a spokesperson with the American Immigration Council, succinctly summarized Pence’s immigration approach to Rewire, saying on Monday that he “basically falls into a camp of being more restrictive on immigration, someone who looks for more punitive ways to punish immigrants, rather than looking for the positive ways our country can benefit from immigrants.”

After Trump’s announcement that Pence would be his running mate, Immigration Impact, a project of the American Immigration Council, outlined what voters should know about Pence’s immigration record:

Pence’s record shows he used his time in Congress and as the Governor of Indiana to pursue extreme and punitive immigration policies earning him a 100 percent approval rating by the anti-immigration group, Federation for American Immigration Reform.

In 2004 when Pence was a senator, he voted for the “Undocumented Alien Emergency Medical Assistance Amendments.” The bill failed, but it would have required hospitals to gather and report information on undocumented patients before hospitals could be reimbursed for treating them. Even worse, the bill wouldn’t have required hospitals to provide care to undocumented patients if they could be deported to their country of origin without a “significant chance” of their condition getting worse.

Though it’s true that in 2006 Pence championed comprehensive immigration reform, as the Daily Beast reported, the reform came with two caveats: a tightening of border security and undocumented immigrants would have to “self-deport” and come back as guest workers. While calling for undocumented immigrants to self-deport may seem like the more egregious demand, it’s important to contextualize Pence’s call for an increase in border security.

This tactic of calling for more Border Patrol agents is commonly used by politicians to pacify those opposed to any form of immigration reform. President Obama, who has utilized more border security than any other president, announced deferred action for the undocumented in June 2012, while also promising to increase border security. But in 2006 when Pence was calling for an increase in border security, the border enforcement policy known as “Operation Gatekeeper” was still in full swing. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Operation Gatekeeper “concentrated border agents and resources along populated areas, intentionally forcing undocumented immigrants to extreme environments and natural barriers that the government anticipated would increase the likelihood of injury and death.” Pence called for more of this, although the undocumented population expanded significantly even when border enforcement resources escalated. The long-term results, the ACLU reported, were that migrants’ reliance on smugglers to transport them increased and migrant deaths multiplied.

There are more direct ways Pence has illustrated a xenophobic agenda, including co-sponsoring a congressional bill that would have made English the official language of the United States and as governor, blocking Syrian refugees en route to Indiana, saying he would not accept any more Syrian refugees out of fear they were “terrorists.” The governor also added Indiana to the Texas lawsuit challenging expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). And he praised the inaction by the Supreme Court last month to expand DACA and DAPA, which leaves millions of undocumented immigrants living in fear of deportation.

According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, “when a child who is not accompanied by a parent or legal guardian is apprehended by immigration authorities, the child is transferred to the care and custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Federal law requires that ORR feed, shelter, and provide medical care for unaccompanied children until it is able to release them to safe settings with sponsors (usually family members), while they await immigration proceedings.”

The ORR added that these sponsors “live in many states,” including Indiana, which received 245 unaccompanied minors between January and July 2014. Pence was reportedly unaware that unaccompanied minors were being placed in his state by the federal government, something he said he was made aware of by media reports. These are asylum seeking children, often girls under the age of 10, escaping violence in their countries of origin who arrive at the United States-Mexico border without an adult. Many, including advocacy organizations and the Obama administration, have contended that the circumstances surrounding unaccompanied minors is not simply an immigration issue, but a humanitarian crisis. Not Pence. In a letter to President Obama, the Indiana governor wrote:

While we feel deep compassion for these children, our country must secure its borders and provide for a legal and orderly immigration process …. Failure to expedite the return of unaccompanied children thwarts the rule of law and will only continue to send a distorted message that illegally crossing into America is without consequence.

In the four days since Pence was named Trump’s running mate, he’s also taken a much harsher stance on Muslim immigration. Back in December when Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” Pence tweeted that banning Muslims from entering the United States was “offensive and unconstitutional.” However, on Friday when Pence was officially named Trump’s VP pick, he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity, “I am very supportive of Donald Trump’s call to temporarily suspend immigration from countries where terrorist influence and impact represents a threat to the United States.”

Wendy Feliz of the American Immigration Council told Rewire that while Pence’s rhetoric may not be as inflammatory as Trump’s, it’s important to look at his record in relation to Trump’s to get a better understanding of what the Republican ticket intends to focus on moving into a possible presidency. Immigration, she said, is one of the most pressing issues of our time and has become a primary focus of the election.

“In a few days, we’ll have a better sense of the particular policies the Republican ticket will be pursuing on immigration. It all appears to point to more of the same, which is punitive, the punishing of immigrants,” Feliz said. “My greatest fear is that this ticket doesn’t seem to realize immigrants are actually an incredible resource that fuels our country. I don’t think Trump and Pence is a ticket that values that. An administration that doesn’t value immigrants, that doesn’t value what’s fueled our country for the past several hundred years, hurts all of us. Not just immigrants themselves, but every single American.”

Culture & Conversation Abortion

The Burden Is Undue: What I Have Learned and Unlearned About Abortion

Madeline Gomez

For all 29 years of my life, the right to abortion has been under attack. In early March, I slept at the Supreme Court overnight, waiting for oral arguments, and had time to reflect on the experiences that have made me an advocate.

Thirteen years before I was born, the Supreme Court declared abortion a fundamental right in Roe v. Wade. Despite this, for all 29 years of my life, the right to abortion has been under attack.

In the past six years alone, states have enacted 288 provisions restricting access to abortion care. Three years ago, the Texas state legislature enacted HB 2, an omnibus anti-abortion bill. And on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled two provisions of that law are unconstitutional.

I am a Texas native, a Latina, a lawyer, and a reproductive justice advocate, so this case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, naturally hits close to home.

In the years since HB 2 has passed, I have heard from friends who have waited weeks and been forced to drive hours just to get an appointment at a clinic. And, as my colleagues and I wrote in an amicus brief the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health filed with the Supreme Court, women of color in Texas, particularly the 2.5 million Latinas of reproductive age, have been disproportionately affected by the clinic closings resulting from the expensive, onerous, and medically unnecessary standards HB 2 imposed. For example, if the law had been allowed to go into full effect, residents of my birthplace, El Paso, Texas, where 81 percent of the population is Latinx, would have to drive over 500 miles to San Antonio in order to get an abortion in the state.

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In early March, I slept at the Court overnight, waiting for oral arguments. In the 24 hours I spent outside the Court, I had time to reflect on the experiences that have made me an advocate.

***

I am 12, with my mother and her dear friend at the dinner table. As the three of us sit together, I regale them with stories of a teacher I deeply admire. She’s been telling us about how she prays the rosary and speaks to women entering abortion clinics, urging them to “choose life.” I believe this is a good act, something I want to be part of, and I’m proud of my righteousness. My mother’s friend says to me simply, “There are a lot of reasons women have abortions.” Almost 20 years later I will learn that this friend had an abortion, which makes sense statistically speaking, since one in three women do.

I am 14 and sitting in high school religion class. The male instructor tells us that pre-marital sex and contraception are forbidden by our Catholic faith. He says the risk especially isn’t worth it for women: It is, according to him, physically impossible for women to orgasm. At the time, and still, I despair for this man’s wife, and for him. Shortly after this lesson the class watches a 45-minute “documentary” about “partial-birth abortion.” This concludes my sexual health education.

I am 18 and counting 180 seconds, waiting to see whether one or two lines appear on a white stick. In a few weeks I am moving to New York to begin college. In those 180 seconds I decide with little fanfare that, regardless of the number of lines, I will not be pregnant when I go. One line appears and I move, able to begin the education I’ve dreamed of and worked for.

I am 19 and talking with a friend. We get to a question that often comes up among women: What would you do if you got pregnant? She tells me calmly and candidly that she would have an abortion. She is the first person I’ve heard say this aloud. Her certitude resonates with me. I know that I would too, and that though I always felt I should be sorry, I would not be. I feel the weight of the shame I’ve been carrying and I stop apologizing for what I know.

I am 20 and teaching sexual education classes to high school students. More than one young woman tells me that she believes she can prevent pregnancy by spraying Coca-Cola into her vagina after intercourse. We talk about safe and effective methods of contraception. Years later, I still think about the damage and danger inflicted upon young women out of fear of our sexuality and power.

I am 21 and lying naked in bed next to a man I’ve been seeing. We’re discussing monogamy. I’m on the pill and he’d like to stop using condoms. He wants me to know, though, that if I become pregnant he won’t let me have an abortion. Because I am desperate to be loved and because I don’t yet understand that love doesn’t mean conceding your autonomy, it will take another year before I leave him.

I am 22 and my friend—the first I know oftells me she is having an abortion. After the procedure I do not know the right thing to do or say or how to comfort and support her. We will lose touch. Like 95 percent of women who have abortionsshe will not regret her choice. When we reconnect years later, we will talk about her happiness and success and about how far we’ve both come.

I am 24 and reading about Congress making a budget deal contingent on “defunding” Planned Parenthood. I understand that though I now refuse to date men who believe they have a say in my reproductive choices, I’m stuck with hundreds of representatives and senators who think they do and who will use my body and health as a bargaining chip.

I am 26 and in my home state of Texas, Wendy Davis is filibustering an anti-abortion bill with two pink tennis shoes on her feet. I watch her all night, my heart swollen with pride at hundreds of women screaming in the rotunda, refusing to be ignored. Despite their efforts, Texas HB 2 will pass. Within three years, over half the abortion clinics in Texas will close.

Today I am 29 and five justices of the Supreme Court have declared the burden imposed by two provisions of HB 2 undue. Limiting abortion and lying about the effects of these laws hurts women’s health, and now the highest court in this nation has declared these actions and these laws unacceptable and unconstitutional. I am in Washington, D.C., 1,362 miles from the home where I grew up, the day the decision is announcedbut it is not just about me and it’s not just about Texas. It is about the recognition and vindication of our worth and rights as human beings. All 162 million of us.