President Barack Obama offered his respect today to a pope who has excited Catholics and non-Catholics alike and refocused the world’s largest religious institution on the issues of poverty and inequality that the president has set as themes of his second term.
“I’m a great admirer,” Obama told the pope before the two men entered the Papal Library for their meeting. “Thank you so much for receiving me.”
The president was escorted to his audience with Pope Francis in a slow procession through the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican, led by papal attendants in formal attire. Swiss guards dressed in gold and purple uniforms saluted him.
The meeting connected two barrier-breaking global leaders, the first African-American president and the Roman Catholic Church’s first modern non-European pope.
With Obama more popular in many countries than he is at home, foreign leaders often seek Obama’s presence to build prestige with domestic audiences. The tables were turned this time as the president, who has slipped in U.S. opinion polls, visited a pope who recently in an interview with an Italian newspaper sought to deflate his “superman” status.
Though their meeting was only scheduled to last a half hour, the private session lasted 52 minutes. The two were smiling and the pope laughed in response to a comment from the president as reporters and senior Obama aides were ushered in at the end of the meeting.
The two spent “the bulk of” their meeting discussing economic inequality and international conflict, Obama said at a press conference later in the day. Despite a “convergence” of interests on the topics, Obama said he doubts the pope would ever forge a direct partnership with a political leader.
“His job is a little more elevated,” Obama said. “We’re down on the ground, dealing with the often profane, and he’s dealing with higher powers.”
Obama said differences between the church and his administration on social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and contraception were “not a topic of conversation” when he and the pope talked. The mandated coverage of contraception in the Affordable Care Act was discussed “briefly” in a separate meeting with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, he said.
A Vatican communique said the issues discussed in his meetings, which also included a session with other officials, included “the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection.” The language suggested a reference to U.S. Catholic bishops opposition to the contraceptives mandate in Obama’s health care law.
Francis, who began his papacy by giving up his apartment in the Apostolic Palace to live in a suite in a guest house, has raised expectations for change, tempering the church’s emphasis on contentious culture-war issues in favor of economic concerns.
One year into his pontificate, Francis’s popularity among American Catholics surpasses the standing at any time of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, though it doesn’t so far match the enthusiasm for John Paul II, who stood against communism as the Soviet empire started to crumble.
Eighty-five percent of American Catholics have a favorable view of Francis, according to a Pew Research Center poll taken Feb. 14-23. Seventy-one percent of Catholics say Francis represents a major change in the direction of the church, a sentiment shared by 56 percent of non-Catholics.
Differences between the U.S. church hierarchy and Obama over social issues were highlighted this week as a challenge to the contraceptives mandate in Obama’s health care law reached the U.S. Supreme Court for arguments.
Still, some in the president’s Democratic party see in Francis a potent ally for their agenda of access to affordable health coverage and opposition to budget cuts to social services.
Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, a Catholic and the party’s second-ranking leader in the chamber, compared Francis to Pope John XXIII, a transformational figure in the church who ushered in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and elevated the emphasis on addressing social injustice.
“I was a kid at the time but I can remember Pope John XXIII,” Durbin said. “I didn’t think there would be another like him in my lifetime, and Pope Francis brings together a lot of those same feelings of inclusion rather than exclusion from the Church.”
Obama presented the pope with a seed chest custom-made with reclaimed wood from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, Maryland. It held a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House Garden.
“If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well,” the president said.
“For sure,” answered the pope, smiling and speaking in Spanish.
The pope gave the president two medallions, including one that symbolizes the need for solidarity and peace between the northern and southern hemispheres.
He also presented Obama a copy of Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel,” a 2013 apostolic exhortation by Francis that called for a renewed focus on the world’s poor.
“I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I’m deeply frustrated,” Obama said. “I’m sure it will give me strength and calm me down.”