Skip to main content

Obama, Pope Francis meet for first time

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The meeting is called a step toward smoothing tensions with Catholics
  • Abortion and Obamacare mandates on contraception are areas of disagreement
  • One place for common ground: the plight of immigrants and the poor
  • Pope Francis' popularity could give President Obama a small bump in the polls

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama gave Pope Francis a box of seeds as a gift, a fitting token as their first-ever meeting provided a fresh start of sorts between the administration and Catholic leadership after years of strained relations.

"These, I think, are carrots," Obama told the Pontiff, showing him a pouch from the box, which was made from timber from the first cathedral to open in the United States, in Baltimore.

The Pope gave the President two medallions -- one symbolizing the need for peace and solidarity between the two hemispheres -- and a copy of "Evangelii Gaudium," or "The Joy of the Gospel." The book was penned by the Pope and calls for a new era of evangelization and a renewed focus on the poor.

The tokens of goodwill underscored the goal of the meeting: Focus on areas where two of the world's most influential men agree, and gently tread ground where they differ.

President Barack Obama laughs as he speaks with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday, March 27. Every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has had a formal audience with the pope. President Barack Obama laughs as he speaks with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday, March 27. Every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has had a formal audience with the pope.
Popes and U.S. presidents
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
Photos: Popes and U.S. presidents Photos: Popes and U.S. presidents
U.S. President Barack Obama and Pope Francis exchange gifts in the Pope's private library at the Vatican on Thursday, March 27. It was their first-ever meeting. U.S. President Barack Obama and Pope Francis exchange gifts in the Pope's private library at the Vatican on Thursday, March 27. It was their first-ever meeting.
President Obama meets Pope Francis
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
President Obama meets Pope Francis President Obama meets Pope Francis
Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the Roman Catholic Church's 266th Pope on March 13, 2013. The first pontiff from Latin America was also the first to take the name Francis. It was a sign of maverick moves to come. Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the Roman Catholic Church's 266th Pope on March 13, 2013. The first pontiff from Latin America was also the first to take the name Francis. It was a sign of maverick moves to come.
Pope Francis' first year
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
Pope Francis\' first year Pope Francis' first year
Rock star Pope shakes up the Vatican

The two men greeted each other with a smile and a handshake and posed for pictures before sitting down across a table from each other. They spoke privately for nearly an hour.

When they emerged from the meeting, the President and the Vatican had slightly different takes on the tenor of their discussions, especially when it came to issues that have frayed the relationship between the Obama administration and American Catholic leaders.

"... (I)t was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved," the Vatican said in a statement. "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. ..."

Obama, in a news conference that followed, told reporters that such issues were "not a topic of conversation" with the Pope and instead were discussed with Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.

According to the Vatican, the two men also discussed the issue of immigration reform and "stated their common commitment to the eradication of human trafficking throughout the world."

On this point, the President and the Pope were simpatico.

"I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with him about the responsibilities that we all share to care for the least of these, the poor, the excluded," Obama told reporters after the meeting. "And I was extremely moved by his insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests."

The meeting took place two days after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on a contraception mandate included in the President's signature health care reform law.

The law exempts churches and houses of worship from the requirement, but nonprofit, religiously affiliated groups are required either to provide contraception coverage to their employees directly or through a third-party insurer.

Pope Francis' most irresistible moments
Jimmy Carter for Catholic women priests
Tourists walk down Via Roma in Lampedusa. Since the late 1990s, the Mediterranean island has been a haven for refugees and migrants. When the Arab Spring caught fire in 2011, the numbers of arrivals shot up. Tourists walk down Via Roma in Lampedusa. Since the late 1990s, the Mediterranean island has been a haven for refugees and migrants. When the Arab Spring caught fire in 2011, the numbers of arrivals shot up.
Lampedusa: A beautiful, perilous stepping-stone
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
Photos: Gateway for migrants, refugees Photos: Gateway for migrants, refugees

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been vocal in its opposition to the provision, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the organization.

"Religious liberties and right-to-life issues are a concern," she said of the tension between American Catholic leadership and the administration. However, "the U.S. bishops have appreciated the administration's cooperation on issues of mutual concern."

5 things you didn't know about popes and presidents

Those areas of "mutual concern" include immigration and poverty -- issues on which the President and the Pope could find common ground.

In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Obama pointed to the Pope's concern for income inequality, saying, "Given his great moral authority, when the Pope speaks it carries enormous weight."

Continuing to focus on income inequality, Obama said, "And it isn't just an economic issue, it's a moral issue. I think the Pope was speaking to the danger that over time we grow accustomed to this kind of inequality and accept it as normal. But we can't."

The President said he admires the Pope's courage to speak out on economic and social issues.

"It doesn't mean we agree on every issue, but his voice is one that I think the world needs to hear. He challenges us," Obama told the newspaper. "He implores us to remember the people, especially the poor, who are affected by the economic decisions we make."

Immigration issues

Francis underscored his commitment to the plight of immigrants during a trip last year to the Italian island of Lampedusa, a place where thousands of African migrants desperately fleeing political upheaval and poverty pour onto European shores. Many die in the attempt to cross.

Next month, a group of American Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, will follow suit and travel to the U.S.-Mexico border to highlight immigration concerns.

On Wednesday, the administration renewed its public call for immigration reform by backing an effort by House Democrats to force a vote on the matter.

"Immigration reform is the right thing to do for our economy, our security, and our future," the White House said in a statement.

Barack Obama and Pope Francis: Unlikely comrades?

Tensions between the administration and many leaders in the American Catholic community began early in the President's tenure over his support for abortion rights.

A number of bishops criticized the University of Notre Dame's decision in 2009 to award Obama an honorary law degree and invite him to give the commencement address.

Relations frayed further over the contraception coverage requirement in Obamacare, leading the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to pan the law.

"It was a very tough year," said Christopher Hale, a senior fellow with Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good who helped lead national Catholic outreach for Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. "It was hard to find any reasonable Catholic who thought the Health and Human Services mandate was handled well."

Differences over same sex-marriage only added to the strained relationship.

Seeking unity, approval

Religious experts said Francis would not have been likely to wade into politically charged conversations during the meeting.

"The Vatican has to be very careful to not create a gap between what they're saying and the bishops are saying," said Steve Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. "They will be very careful not to undercut the American bishops in that regard."

Pope accepts resignation of German 'Bling Bishop'

The meeting with Francis, whose approval ratings are in the high 80s, might also boost Obama in that regard. His standing with the public has hovered in the low 40s.

After all, the Pope's name and quotes have been invoked in everything from discussions over unemployment insurance, the minimum wage and the bigger issue of income inequality.

"If I was advising President Obama, I would say the No. 1 spokesperson on American immigration reform should be Pope Francis," Hale said. "He has so much capital in this city. You have Catholics, Jews and atheists on the Hill quoting him."

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican and a Catholic, recently invited the Pope to address a joint session of Congress.

"Everybody on the planet would like to have their picture taken with the Pope these days," Schneck said. "One of the things that would delight Obama is if some of that popularity would rub off. Given the President's current low numbers, he is hoping for a bit of a boost."

CNN's Ed Payne contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
Using his strongest language to date, Pope Francis told Italian Mafia members that they are excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
"Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise," Pope Francis said.
June 20, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
No topic has been off limits for Pope Francis so far.
June 14, 2014 -- Updated 2133 GMT (0533 HKT)
Pope Francis prefers not to use a bulletproof Popemobile because it is a glass "sardine can" that walls him off from people.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 0458 GMT (1258 HKT)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres committed themselves to the quest for peace with Pope Francis.
May 23, 2014 -- Updated 1846 GMT (0246 HKT)
As the Holy Land prepares for a papal visit, Ivan Watson speaks to the man preparing to honor the pontiff with his food.
April 25, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Three of the best-loved leaders in the history of the Roman Catholic church will be united this weekend.
April 25, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II are to be made into saints this weekend in an unprecedented double papal canonization.
April 27, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
October 1962: Pope John XXIII (1881 - 1963) receives an enthusiastic welcome from the crowds at Loreto, during a pilgrimage to pray at the shrines of Loreto and Assisi before the start of the Roman Catholic Ecumenical Council.
Here are five things you need to know about the much-loved "Good Pope."
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1631 GMT (0031 HKT)
Not a jot of doctrine has changed in the year since Francis became Pope. But there's more than one way to measure his impact.
February 22, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Pope Francis created 19 new cardinals in a ceremony in the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica -- the first such appointments since he was elected pontiff.
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
"The spring evening in which Pope Francis was elected is an apt symbol of the beginning of his papacy and the years that will follow," writes a priest.
February 14, 2014 -- Updated 1605 GMT (0005 HKT)
In a gesture towards Valentine's Day, Pope Francis gave his advice on how to have a happy marriage before thousands of couples.
January 16, 2014 -- Updated 1912 GMT (0312 HKT)
A senior Vatican official acknowledged Thursday there is "no excuse" for child sex abuse.
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 2010 GMT (0410 HKT)
Take a look at Pope Francis' first year in photos with our gallery.
November 7, 2013 -- Updated 2343 GMT (0743 HKT)
It was the embrace that melted hearts worldwide.
April 3, 2013 -- Updated 0959 GMT (1759 HKT)
On Easter Sunday, Pope Francis kisses and hugs disabled boy lifted up in the crowd.
April 11, 2013 -- Updated 1609 GMT (0009 HKT)
With the new pope himself a trained scientist, could the timing could be right for a new era of cooperation between the Vatican and science?
March 16, 2013 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Pope Francis is being painted as a humble and simple man, but his past is tinged with controversy.
ADVERTISEMENT