Sharp differences over abortion and birth control surfaced as President Barack Obama held his first meeting Thursday with Pope Francis, even as the president sought to emphasize common ground issues like economic inequality during a much-anticipated Vatican visit.
After Obama’s hourlong audience with the pope, the Vatican said discussions centered on questions of “particular relevance for the church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection” – issues that have fueled divisions between Obama and Catholics in the U.S.
But the Vatican statement also said the leaders discussed immigration reform, touching on an issue where Obama has largely enjoyed the support of America’s many Hispanic Catholics. The Vatican didn’t say whether those issues came up directly with Francis or in a subsequent meeting with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
Obama, for his part, emerged visibly energized from his audience with the pope, during which he expressed his great admiration and invited him to visit the White House.
“It is a great honor. I’m a great admirer,” Obama said after greeting the pope with a slight bow as they shook hands. “Thank you so much for receiving me.”
Although Obama and the church remain deeply split over social issues, Obama considers the pontiff a kindred spirit on issues of inequality, and their private meeting in the Papal Library ran longer than scheduled. After they emerged to cameras, Francis presented Obama with a copy of his papal mission statement decrying a global economic system that excludes the poor. Obama said he will keep it in the Oval Office.
“You know, I actually will probably read this when I’m in the Oval Office, when I am deeply frustrated and I am sure it will give me strength and will calm me down,” Obama said.
“I hope,” the pope responded.
The president and pope both appeared tense at the start of the audience, when they initially greeted one another, but then were all smiles by the end of the meeting and seemed to have found a rapport, though they spoke through interpreters.
Obama arrived at the Vatican amid all the pomp and tradition of the Catholic Church, making his way in a long, slow procession through the hallways of the Apostolic Palace led by colorful Swiss Guards and accompanied by ceremonial attendants. The president bowed as he shook hands with the pontiff in the Small Throne Room, before the two sat down at the pope’s desk, as is custom for a papal audience.
Obama presented the pope with a seed chest with fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House Garden, mentioning that he understands the pope is opening the gardens at the papal summer residence to the public. The chest was inscribed with the date of their meeting and custom-made of leather and reclaimed wood from the Baltimore Basilica – one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals in the U.S.
“If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well,” Obama said.
“Why not?” the pope responded in his native Spanish.
Although the Vatican has not yet confirmed the trip, it is likely that Francis will travel to the U.S. in September 2015 for the church’s World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Popes have attended these family celebrations five of the past seven times they have been held, and Francis has put family issues at the forefront of his agenda.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has extended a formal and open invitation to the pope to address Congress when he visits the United States.
As Obama departed, he said to the pope, “Muchas gracias.” Then in English he added: “Please pray for me and my family.”
It was an echo of how Francis usually ends his meetings, asking for people to pray for him.
As they met, the six-year president, with his sinking poll numbers, wouldn’t have been blamed for seeking some reflected glory from a pope who, one year into his pontificate, is viewed as an agent of change in the Roman Catholic Church. In Francis, the White House sees the popular pope and his emphasis on economic disparity as a form of moral validation of the president’s own economic agenda.
“Given his great moral authority, when the pope speaks it carries enormous weight,” Obama said in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera published ahead of his papal visit. “He can cause people around to the world to stop and perhaps rethink old attitudes and begin treating one another with more decency and compassion.”
After leaving the Vatican midday, Obama made his way to Rome’s Quirinal Palace for a series of meetings with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Later, Obama and Renzi were to take questions from the press together at Rome’s Villa Madama, a Renaissance-era villa said to be designed by Raphael.
Obama is the ninth president to make an official visit to the Vatican. His audience marks a change of pace for the president, who has devoted the past three days of a weeklong, four-country trip to securing European unity against Russia’s aggressive posture toward Ukraine.
To be sure, the relationship between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church is a fraught one. Just this week, the Supreme Court seemed divided when hearing arguments in a case in which companies argued that they have religious rights and can object to such coverage based on such beliefs.
Anticipating that the issue would be a topic of their meeting, Catholics for Choice published an ad Thursday in the International New York Times declaring that “Francis’ interpretation of church teachings does not represent that of the majority of Catholics, especially on issues related to sexuality, reproductive health and family life.”
Francis faithfully backs church teaching on abortion – he has said he’s a “son of the church” – but his emphasis and tone are elsewhere. He has said he wants his church to be more of a welcoming place for wounded souls rather than a moralizing church.