US President Barack Obama continued his overseas trip Thursday with a visit to the Vatican City to meet with Pope Francis. While the meeting was extremely amicable, there are conflicting messages coming out of the White House and the Vatican regarding what President Obama and the Pope discussed during their meeting.
According to the official White House website, the president and the Pope “had a wide-ranging discussion.”
“I would say that the largest bulk of the time was discussing two central concerns of his,” said the White House. “One is the issues of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity, and growing inequality. … And then we spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world.”
That emphasis is quite different from what the Vatican says was the Pope’s main area of concern discussed with the president.
According to the Official Vatican Network website, News.va, in addition to “current international themes,” the Pope expressed “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.”
Of particular concern to the Pontiff is the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare,” which conservatives, religious groups and others in the United States claim violates the religious freedom enshrined in the First Amendment.
The contraception mandate is currently the subject of a US Supreme Court case, with many legal experts expecting the high court to rule against the measure.
Obama and the Pope also discussed areas of common interest, including their “common commitment to the eradication” of human trafficking, according to the Vatican.
The White House website also highlighted the leaders’ agreement 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 your or talk like you or share your philosophy” is critical, and that “the lack of empathy… makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars.”
Following his meeting with the Pope and other high-ranking Vatican officials, the president had lunch with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, then a bilateral meeting with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Obama then did a bit of sightseeing at Rome’s famous Colosseum.
President Obama now heads to oil-rich ally Saudi Arabia, where he is under pressure from international human rights advocates to address the fundamentalist monarchy’s abysmal rights record.