By Hilary White

ROME, May 26, 2009 ( – The Vatican’s daily newspaper has given a nod to the heavy international criticism from pro-life Catholics over its spate of articles praising US President Barack Obama. In a slight shift of editorial direction this weekend, L’Osservatore Romano published the comments of Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George calling on Obama to protect the rights of conscience for pro-life physicians.

In his May 17th Notre Dame speech, Obama said, “Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics.” Two days later, Cardinal George issued a statement, republished by the US Bishops’ Conference, calling on Obama to be true to that promise.

The cardinal, head of one of the largest Catholic dioceses in the US, wrote, “These [conscience protection] laws should be fully implemented and enforced.

“Caring health professionals and institutions should know that their deeply held religious or moral convictions will be respected as they exercise their right to serve patients in need,” he wrote.

In an article in L’Osservatore Romano’s Italian edition on Sunday Mark Bellizi commented, “This is a relevant issue since following the decisions made by the new administration on ethical issues, many health workers could find themselves providing services that they do not morally accept.”

Bellizi, however, reports on Cardinal George’s statement and Obama’s mention of the conscience issue in his Notre Dame speech without mentioning Obama’s current efforts to abolish the Bush administration’s conscience protections. Instead, Bellizi repeats at face value Obama’s statement at Notre Dame, saying, “Obama … has ensured that the right to [conscience protection], until now provided by law, will continue to be recognized.”

Catholic News Agency, reporting on the article, called it the second time the Vatican paper has reported on the criticisms by the US Bishops of Obama. But the L’Osservatore Romano article itself again avoided mention of the over 80 US bishops who said that Obama should not have been invited to appear at Notre Dame at all. Instead, Bellizi notes only that the speech at Notre Dame provided an opportunity for the US bishops to clarify the Catholic position on such issues as conscience protection.

“Taking advantage of the invitation of President Obama in his speech at the University of Notre Dame, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference has recalled what are the mandatory terms in which, from the Catholic point of view, dialogue … may occur.”

On May 22nd Catholic News Agency, with the headline, “Vatican newspaper finally reports on U.S. bishops’ criticism of Obama, Notre Dame,” reported on an article in that day’s Italian edition that quoted the strong criticism of Denver’s Archbishop Chaput of Obama’s invitation by Notre Dame’s president Fr. John Jenkins.

The Vatican paper wrote that Archbishop Chaput “criticized the decision of the University of Notre Dame to honor someone who has demonstrated the willingness” to uphold Roe v. Wade.

But critics have expressed their scepticism that the two articles signal the waning of L’Osservatore Romano’s enthusiasm for the US president. US Catholic publisher and commentator Deal Hudson wrote that the paper’s “desire to present Obama in the best possible light is evident.”

“Would anyone in this country, even the most far-left reporter, describe Obama’s attitude toward defending Roe v. Wade as a ‘willingness’?  Something more like ‘passionate commitment’ would be closer to the truth,” Hudson said.

The paper’s editorial position on Obama was explained last week when, in an interview with an Italian political analyst, its editor-in-chief said that he did not believe Barack Obama is a pro-abortion politician. Giovanni Maria Vian said that Obama’s speech at Notre Dame was “to be appreciated” because it “was respectful toward every position.”

“He tried to engage the debate, stepping out from every ideological position and outside every ‘confrontational mentality.’” Vian told Paolo Rodari.

Vian said that the paper is committed to the position of the US bishops on abortion, but that it is “appropriate to present other perspectives.” He added, “If a national bishops’ conference says something, we report it.”

With the Notre Dame controversy hitting front pages in even secular newspapers in the US, Catholics around the world were increasingly uneasy when, in the weeks leading up to Obama’s Notre Dame appearance, L’Osservatore Romano was silent on the growing list of US bishops who had issued strong public statements condemning the invitation. Nevertheless, despite the growing chorus of criticism, there has been no clarification from the head of the Holy See Press Office, Fr. Frederico Lombardi, or from the Secretariat of State on Vian’s comments.

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