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At Vatican meeting, Pope prods Obama on freedom of conscience

March 27, 2014

Pope Francis met with US President Barack Obama at the Vatican on March 27.

In a brief public statement released after the meeting, the Vatican indicated that in their 52-minute conversation, the Pontiff and the President had discussed international affairs, with the Pope stressing respect for international law and the desire for negotiated solutions to conflicts.

However the Vatican statement also strongly emphasized concern for “the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection”—an unmistakable reference to the Church’s concern about the Obama administration’s effort to impose mandatory contraceptive coverage in health-care programs.

The Vatican statement also mentioned that Pope Francis and President Obama had spoken about immigration reform, and “their common commitment to the eradication of human trafficking throughout the world.”

During their first exchange, in the presence of journalists, the Pope and the President—speaking always through interpreters-- joked lightheartedly. President Obama proclaimed himself a “great admirer” of the Pontiff.

After their private conversation, President Obama presented the Pontiff with a seed box, containing seeds of plants from the White House garden. Pope Francis in turn gave the President two bronze medals, symbolizing solidarity and peace, and a copy of his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. As he left the library of the apostolic palace, where the exchange of gifts took place, President Obama asked the Holy Father to pray for him and his family.

President Obama’s visit to the Vatican, and his first meeting with Pope Francis, had been heavily anticipated, with American commentators especially anxious to see whether the Pope would indicate his support for the President’s policies on some issues or opposition on others. The Pope’s conversation with the President was private, however, leaving the Vatican’s public statement—with its clear reference to disagreement over the contraceptive mandate—as the only indication of how the conversation unfolded.

The agenda for that conversation may have changed because of the growing international tensions surrounding Ukraine, which President Obama had addressed in a public speech delivered in Brussels on the eve of his visit to Rome. The Vatican statement made first mention of the discussion of international issues, probably indicating that this discussion had taken top priority.

Conspicuously absent from the Vatican statement was any reference to economic policies. Some political allies of President Obama had seen Pope Francis as a potential supporter of White House programs aimed at ending economic inequalities in the US and abroad. That topic was not mentioned in the Vatican summary of the meeting.


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  • Posted by: normnuke - Mar. 29, 2014 12:01 PM ET USA

    I was greatly relieved that President Obama did not emerge from the meeting assuring us that if we liked our Pope we could keep him.

  • Posted by: John Holecek - Mar. 27, 2014 6:45 PM ET USA

    Given his arrogance, President Obama probably thought he could roll the Pope the way he did Cardinal Dolan. Didn't happen. Shows the difference between a bishop and a pope.

  • Posted by: rpp - Mar. 27, 2014 2:51 PM ET USA

    The Lord has shown great mercy in preserving us from having endure Joe Biden as President as President Obama did not spontaneously combust.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 27, 2014 2:30 PM ET USA

    And so the Pope's gifts to Obama were physical representations that solidarity and peace come to us through, are the ultimate fruits of, the joy of the gospel--and doing the works that God has prepared in advance for us, as St. Paul wrote. (Mea maxima culpa, I just couldn't resist.)

  • Posted by: shrink - Mar. 27, 2014 1:09 PM ET USA

    Evangelii Gaudium is not an encyclical.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 27, 2014 12:10 PM ET USA

    The President did have the prudence to request prayers of the Holy Father for himself and for his family. Ought to give credit where credit is due, and we might hope for God's help in the governance of our nation.

  • Posted by: normnuke - Mar. 27, 2014 12:06 PM ET USA

    Altogether satisfactory. And, frankly, a big relief to me. Evidently P. Francis was well aware that O. was looking to score political advantage ahead of elections coming up.