Pope Meets Obama with Abortion as Topic No. 1
President Obama met Pope Benedict XVI for the first time today in a closed-door meeting that a Vatican statement said covered multiple topics but focused on the Catholic Church's opposition to abortion.
The pope also gave Obama copies of his recent encyclical on the global economy and a statement of Catholic teaching on bioethics, which Benedict's personal secretary said would help Obama "better understand" why church positions are at odds with the president's.
Obama's visit to the Vatican came at the end of the G-8 summit in L'Aquila, 70 miles northeast of Rome, which Obama told the pope had been "very productive."
Benedict greeted Obama outside his private library shortly before 4:30 pm, and escorted the president inside for a 30-minute private conversation. Although Benedict speaks fluent English, the leaders were joined by two interpreters seated on either side of the pope's desk.
A Vatican statement released shortly after the meeting made it clear that while the two men discussed a number of issues, abortion was at the top of the pope's agenda.
"In the course of their cordial exchanges, the conversation turned first of all to questions which are in the interests of all ... such as the defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one's conscience," the Vatican statement said.
The mention of "conscience" was an apparent reference to so-called conscience clauses, which exempt health care providers from participating in services – namely abortion, sterilization and contraception – to which they have moral objections. Obama has moved to scrap the protections, which were approved as former President George W. Bush was leaving office.
Even so, Obama "told the pope of his commitment to reduce the number of abortions and of his attention and respect for the positions of the Catholic Church," Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters after the meeting.
In many ways, Obama's early relations with the Catholic Church, both in Rome and in the United States, have been marked by tension over his policies on medical ethics. In May, some 80 U.S. bishops criticized the University of Notre Dame for granting Obama an honorary degree despite his support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research, which church teaching forbids.
The Vatican's approach to Obama, however, has been friendlier, as reflected by coverage in its official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, which at times has been openly enthusiastic since Obama's election last November.
"The Vatican wants good relations with the Obama administration," said Massimo Franco, a Rome-based expert on U.S.-Vatican relations, and author of the book "Parallel Empires."
Although disappointed that he does not share his predecessor's stands on abortion and stem cell research, Franco said, Vatican diplomats welcome many of Obama's international policies, such as his overtures to the Muslim world.
The Vatican and Washington "are beginning a new phase of an alliance based on pragmatism," Franco said, that is "realistic, not ideological."
Among other topics in Friday's discussion, the Vatican statement highlighted immigration, "with particular attention to the matter of reuniting families," and the Middle East peace process, "on which there was general agreement." Both the Vatican and the White House support the so-called two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Vatican statement said the two leaders also discussed the importance of intercultural and inter-religious dialogue, the "global economic crisis," "food security," "development aid especially for Africa and Latin America," "drug trafficking," and the "importance of educating young people everywhere in the value of tolerance."
Before his audience with the pope, Obama met for about 10 minutes with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Following his discussion with Benedict, the president introduced first lady Michelle Obama to the pope, and the two leaders exchanged gifts.
The president gave Benedict a ceremonial stole that had once lain over the body of St. John Neumann, a 19th-century bishop of Philadelphia. Benedict presented Obama with the customary papal present to heads of state, a gold medal commemorating his pontificate, as well as a mosaic of St. Peter's Square.
The pope also had a couple of pieces of reading material for the president. One was a white leather-bound copy of Benedict's third encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate," published three days before their meeting, which many Obama supporters have said shows an affinity between the two leaders' vision for the world.
The papal document, which calls for "redistribution" of wealth and enhanced international cooperation for peace and environmental protection, shows a "convergence of interests between the Holy Father's social justice agenda and the announced agenda of the president," said Nicholas P. Cafardi, who served on Obama's Catholic advisory committee during last year's presidential campaign.
Benedict also gave Obama a Vatican document published last December that condemns high-tech infertility treatments and contraception technologies, and reaffirms the church's strong prohibition of abortion and embryonic stem cell research.
Monsignor Georg Ganswein, Benedict's personal secretary, told reporters that the bioethics document "could help the president better understand the position of the Catholic Church."
Obama thanked Benedict for the document and told him he would read it on Air Force One. Shortly after leaving the Vatican, the Obamas flew to Ghana, where they were to be the guests of honor at a state dinner.