Today President Barack Obama and Pope Francis met for the first time, in an encounter at the Vatican that included a one-on-one conversation running nearly an hour. The Vatican released the following statement after the meeting, which comes during the president’s six-day international trip:
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.
The mention of religious freedom and issues of conscience is particularly notable; just two days ago, the Obama administration argued before the Supreme Court in defense of its HHS mandate, which would require employers to provide health insurance coverage of contraception—including drugs and devices that can induce early abortions—despite religious objections.
Following Obama’s private meeting with the Pope, the two exchanged gifts, as is customary on such occasions. From Francis X. Rocca’s CNS report:
At the end of their talk, Pope Francis gave Obama a bound edition of his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), published last November. The gift prompted the president to respond: “You know, I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I am deeply frustrated, and I am sure it will give me strength and will calm me.”
“I hope,” the pope replied with a laugh.
In a December speech, Obama quoted a passage from the exhortation in which the pope lamented: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
Pope Francis also presented Obama with a pair of bronze medallions, one portraying an angel that brings together the world’s North and South in “solidarity and peace founded on justice”; and another commemorating the 17th-century construction of the colonnades around St. Peter’s Square.
The president’s gift to the pope was a selection of fruit and vegetable seeds from the White House garden, in a box made from reclaimed wood used to build Baltimore’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the first Catholic cathedral in the United States.
“If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well,” Obama said.
“Of course,” the pope replied.
UPDATE: At a press conference given after his meeting with the Holy Father, President Obama downplayed discussions of religious freedom issues and the HHS mandate, saying that conscience protections were “discussed briefly” when the president met with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, but that Francis “did not touch in detail on the Affordable Care Act” in their conversation. According to President Obama, the two subjects he discussed most with the Holy Father were income inequality (which was not mentioned at all in the Vatican’s press release on the meeting) and “the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world.” When asked about disagreements with Holy Father in regard to certain social issues, the president responded: “I just want to make clear…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.”
On his conversation with Cardinal Parolin:
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.