VATICAN CITY — President Obama visited Pope Francis for the first time Thursday, a meeting the White House hoped would amplify the two men's shared concern about economic inequality rather than the president's conflicts with the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy at home.
Obama introduced himself to Francis as a "great admirer." The pope has become internationally popular as he has shed some of the lavish trappings of the papacy and focused his teachings on caring for the poor. Obama has sought to borrow some of that goodwill for the new pope to help promote his own effort to reduce income inequality in the United States.
The president said later that much of the 52-minute meeting at the Vatican was consumed by a discussion of "the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity, and growing inequality," as well as "the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world," particularly in the Middle East.
"I think he is shining a spotlight on an area that's going to be of increasing concern," Obama said at a news conference. "So he's, hopefully, creating an environment in which those of us who care about this are able to talk about it more effectively."
The visit was not entirely an uncomplicated meeting of the minds. U.S. bishops have waged a pitched fight against elements of Obama's healthcare law, charging that it forces Catholic institutions to provide contraception for employees, in violation of church doctrine. But the rift appears to have been only delicately raised in the Apostolic Palace.
Obama said the pope didn't talk "in detail" about the Affordable Care Act but that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See's secretary of state, discussed it briefly. And he said he pledged to work with the bishops "to make sure that we can strike the right balance."
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement that he hoped the president would promote laws "that protect life in all its stages as well as the free religious exercise for all persons of faith."
Obama and Francis appeared to have quickly developed a rapport. After walking past a cordon of the Swiss Guard in purple-and-gold-striped pantaloons designed by Michelangelo, Obama and the pope stiffly exchanged pleasantries. After their talk, the two fell into easy smiles and laughs as they exchanged gifts and spoke through interpreters.
The president delivered a selection of seeds, a starter kit for a garden the pope has said he hopes to plant at his summer residence. "These, I think, are carrots," Obama said, holding up one of the pouches in the chest, which was made of wood from a Baltimore cathedral built when John Carroll, a Jesuit like Francis, was the first Catholic bishop in America.
Obama invited the pope to see the White House garden, and the pope, who has not traveled as extensively as his predecessors, responded in Spanish with "Como no?" meaning, "Why not?"
Along with two medallions, which Obama said he would "treasure," the pope gave the president a copy of his recent apostolic exhortation, "The Joy of Gospel." The essay decries the "throwaway" culture of consumption and "trickle-down" theories of economic growth.
Obama recently quoted from it in a speech on economic inequality. But the document also shows the clear limits to Obama's agreement with the pope, who spent most of his career in Latin America. Francis urges political leaders to undertake financial reform with "a vigorous change of approach" and makes references to the "tyranny" of capitalism.
Accepting the gift, Obama, an advocate of free markets, said, "I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I'm deeply frustrated. I'm sure it will give me strength and calm me down."
"I hope," the pope responded.
During his day in Rome, Obama also met with President Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and toured the Colosseum. The visit capped a three-country European tour dominated by discussion of Russia's seizure of Crimea. The visit to the Vatican was a break that Obama, looking more upbeat than he has so far on the trip, appeared to welcome.
In Washington, Republicans have bristled at Obama's attempt to affiliate himself with the pope while he battles U.S. bishops.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) invited Francis two weeks ago to deliver a joint address to Congress, which would be the first such speech by the head of the Catholic Church.
Obama said Thursday that he made a distinction between his work as political leader and the pope's as a moral authority. "His job is a little more elevated. We're down on the ground dealing with the often profane, and he's dealing with higher powers," he said.
As he left, he asked for the pope's blessing.
"My family has to be with me on this journey. They've been very strong," Obama told Francis. "Pray for them. I would appreciate it."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun