Pope Francis and Obama: Two Tales of One Meeting

On March 27, President Obama met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, but the topics of discussion remain in dispute. Whatever was talked about, it's hard to imagine that the pontiff could win over Obama in areas where they disagree, such as religious liberty and human rights for the unborn.

In 2009, President Obama went to Rome to meet with now-Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, but it's difficult to see where the conversation had much effect on many of his administration's policies.

Flash forward to 2013, and the Obama administration was trying to force the Catholic Little Sisters of the Poor, who care for the elderly, to accept insurance that provides birth control.

Just to be clear, they're nuns – Catholic nuns. To anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Church doctrine, that was obviously a non-starter for several reasons. Yet that reality didn't seem to deter HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who was raised a Catholic (although the current state of her faith is unclear at best) and therefore should know better.

The contraception-mandate part of Obamacare – interpreted by American Catholic bishops as as a frontal assault on the First Amendment's assurance of freedom of religion – is still matriculating through the Supreme Court. Yet Obama has been trying to woo Catholic support since his community-organizing days in Chicago. Luckily for him, some Catholics still reflexively vote for Democrats, largely based on social-justice concerns (and a lingering idolatry centered on John F. Kennedy).

However, Obama's enthusiastic support of contraception and abortion-on-demand – including his passionate attack as an Illinois state senator on the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act (BAIPA) in that state, intended to mandate medical care for babies that survive late-term abortions – would seem to preclude support from any orthodox Catholic.

While Obama seems to like to surround himself with dissenting Catholics – such as Sebelius, and abortion-rights advocates Vice President Joe Biden, House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and Secretary of State John Kerry – one person that takes his Catholic faith seriously is Pope Francis.

At the meeting, the Pope gave the President a copy of his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium or "The Joy of the Gospel" (unfortunately, he probably gave him the Vatican's mess of an English translation). In return, the president gave the pope an ornate box made of American leather and wood from America's first cathedral, Baltimore's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. In it were fruit and vegetable seeds from his wife's White House garden (in the generally unfortunate run of Obama's gifts to world leaders, this one is unique and thoughtful).

A statement released by the Vatican about three-and-a-half hours later said:

This morning, 27 March 2014, the Hon. Barack H. Obama, President of the United States of America, was received in audience by His Holiness Pope Francis, after which he met with his Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations With States.

During the cordial meetings, views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.

In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, there was a discussion 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, as well as the issue of immigration reform. Finally, the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated.

Conspicuously absent is any mention of a discussion of economic policies or philosophies. Also, in bringing up immigration, Francis kept his word to a 10-year-old California girl, Jersey Vargas, who spoke to him on Wednesday in St. Peter's Square about Obama's deportation of illegal aliens. Vargas and those with her got their spot thanks to the intercession of Mexican-born Archbishop Jose Gomez of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, who, despite the many liturgical, catechetical, and financial issues facing him, has chosen to focus on illegal immigration.

Rather than a statement, the White House issued excerpts from the press conference the president held with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi:

Q. Mr. President, in your meeting with His Holiness, Pope Francis, did he register any objections with you about the contraception coverage mandate in the Affordable Care Act or your efforts to advance the rights of gays and lesbians in the United States that worry so many Catholics? And what were his concerns?

And on Russia, with reports of troops building on the Ukrainian border, by taking the military option off the table are you sending a signal to Vladimir Putin that other parts of Ukraine are his for the taking? And why not send multinational peacekeepers to the Ukrainian border as a deterrent?

And to you, Mr. Prime Minister, the President said yesterday that the U.S. would defend any NATO ally. Are you making that same commitment when it comes to Russia?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: In terms of the meeting with His Holiness, Pope Francis, we had a wide-ranging discussion. I would say that the largest bulk of the time was discussing two central concerns of his. One is the issues of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity, and growing inequality.

And those of us as politicians have the task of trying to come up with policies to address issues, but His Holiness has the capacity to open people’s eyes and make sure they’re seeing that this is an issue. And he’s discussed in the past I think the dangers of indifference or cynicism when it comes to our ability to reach out to those less fortunate or those locked out of opportunity.

And then we spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world. There was some specific focus on the Middle East where His Holiness has a deep interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but also what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Lebanon, and the potential persecution of Christians. And I reaffirmed that it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world. But we also touched on regions like Latin America, where there’s been tremendous progress in many countries, but there’s been less progress in others.

I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don't look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy – that that's critical. It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It's the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets. And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me. And what’s I think created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.

In terms of domestic issues, the two issues that we touched on – other than the fact that I invited and urged him to come to the United States, telling him that people would be overjoyed to see him – was immigration reform. And as someone who came from Latin America, I think he is very mindful of the plight of so many immigrants who are wonderful people, working hard, making contribution, many of their children are U.S. citizens, and yet they still live in the shadows, in many cases have been deported and are separated from families. I described to him how I felt that there was still an opportunity for us to make this right and get a law passed.

And he actually did not touch in detail on the Affordable Care Act. In my meeting with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, we discussed briefly the issue of making sure that conscience and religious freedom was observed in the context of applying the law. And I explained to him that most religious organizations are entirely exempt. Religiously affiliated hospitals or universities or NGOs simply have to attest that they have a religious objection, in which case they are not required to provide contraception although that employees of theirs who choose are able to obtain it through the insurance company.

And I pledged to continue to dialogue with the U.S. Conference of Bishops to make sure that we can strike the right balance, making sure that not only everybody has health care but families, and women in particular, are able to enjoy the kind of health care coverage that the AC offers, but that religious freedom is still observed.…

Q. Mr. President, I just want to follow up on Jim’s question on your meeting with the Pope today. Do you think some of the schisms that he referenced on social issues would stand in the way of you and Pope Francis collaborating or forming a strategic alliance to tackle income inequality?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: First of all, I just want to make clear – maybe it wasn’t clear from my answer to Jim – that we actually didn’t talk a whole lot about social schisms in my conversations with His Holiness. In fact, that really was not a topic of conversation. I think His Holiness and the Vatican have been clear about their position on a range of issues, some of them I differ with, most I heartily agree with. And I don’t think that His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or a coalition with any political figure on any issue. His job is a little more elevated. We’re down on the ground dealing with the often profane, and he’s dealing with higher powers.

I do think that there is a potential convergence between what policymakers need to be thinking about and what he’s talking about. I think he is shining a spotlight on an area that’s going to be of increasing concern, and that is reduced opportunities for more and more people, particularly young people – who, by the way, have more and more access to seeing what’s out there and what’s possible because they have access to the Internet or they have access to other media, and they see the inequality and they see themselves being locked out in ways that weren’t true before. And that’s true internationally, not just within countries.

And so, for him to say that we need to think about this, we need to focus on this, we need to come up with policies that provide a good education for every child and good nutrition for every child, and decent shelter and opportunity and jobs – he is not going to get into details of it, but he reminds us of what our moral and ethical obligations are. It happens also to be good economics and good national security policy. Countries are more stable, they’re going to grow faster when everybody has a chance, not just when a few have a chance.

So he’s, hopefully, creating an environment in which those of us who care about this are able to talk about it more effectively. And we are in many ways following not just his lead but the teachings of Jesus Christ and other religions that care deeply about the least of these.

Some of the differences between the descriptions of the meetings may be attributed to the Vatican statement referring to all of the conversations, not just the one with the Pope, taking a more comprehensive view of the encounter. Obama chose instead to drill down on just what he said to whom in an attempt to regain control of the narrative.

He may have forgotten that Cardinal Bergoglio was not a creature of the Vatican before becoming pope. Instead, he was in Argentina, gaining experience dealing with dangerous, totalitarian, and corrupt regimes. So, coping with a liberal American leader probably didn't seem all that daunting.

However, when an embattled president is seeking to catch a bit of reflected glory from a popular pontiff, he's going to cast himself in the best light.


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