VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI pledged on Friday that the U.S. Catholic church will keep working to shape American consciences on ethical questions such as abortion as he praised the United States for its "vibrant" democracy.
He told new U.S. Ambassador Miguel H. Diaz, a university theology professor who is a Roman Catholic, that he was confident the two sides would continue to enjoy "fruitful dialogue and cooperation in the promotion of human rights, and the service of justice, solidarity and peace."
Vatican teaching forbids abortion, and some Catholic bishops have threatened to withhold Communion from Catholic politicians who support legalized abortion.
President Barack Obama is pro-choice but the Vatican welcomes many of the new U.S. administration's other initiatives and Benedict praised Obama's recent efforts at the U.N. Security Council to work toward a "goal of a world free of nuclear weapons."
Diaz, presenting his credentials to the pope in a ceremony in the Apostolic Palace, hailed Benedict for emphasizing "moral imperatives."
Benedict endorsed American Catholics efforts to be vocal about their faith's teaching on public issues.
"The church in the United States wishes to contribute to the discussion of the weighty ethical and social questions shaping America's future by proposing respectful and reasonable arguments grounded in natural law and confirmed by the perspective of faith," the pontiff said.
The U.S. church contributes through "the formation of consciences" particularly on issues regarding "the inalienable right to life from the moment of conception to natural death," Benedict said. "Conception to natural death" is a phrase the Vatican frequently uses to refer to abortion and euthanasia.
The church also needed to speak out clearly on behalf of the "right to conscientious objection" by health-care workers "and indeed all citizens" on moral issues like abortion, Benedict said.
Benedict said that when he visited the United States last year he found a "vibrant democracy, committed to the service of the common good and shaped by a vision of equality and equal opportunity based on the God-given dignity and freedom of each human being."
While not commenting directly on Obama's uphill battle with the U.S. Congress to guarantee health care to all Americans, Benedict cited "basic health care" along with secure access to food and water among a spectrum of global issues "linked to the future of humanity and the promotion of human dignity."
Other similarly vital priorities in the pontiff's view were "just policies" on trade and immigration, including matters involving families.
Hispanics make up a large segment of the U.S. Catholic population, and the Havana-born Diaz is the first Hispanic to serve Washington as envoy to the Holy See.
The ambassador told Benedict that his "urgent priorities" including efforts to combat climate change, ensure food security and find an ethical response to the financial crisis "coincide with those set forth by President Obama."
Obama's receipt of an honorary degree from the Catholic University of Notre Dame this year provoked criticism from dozens of Catholic bishops because Obama supports legalized abortion.
Benedict warmly welcomed Obama at the Vatican in July when the U.S. leader came to Italy for the G-8 summit. He told Diaz he recalled that meeting "with pleasure" and asked him to reciprocate "the kind greetings which you bring from him."
In his speech Friday, Benedict appeared to allude to the election of Obama as America's first black president when he said recent U.S. "reaffirmation" of the country's tradition of diversity "recaptured the imagination of the world."