Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, and Barack Obama, the first black American president, finally met today in an historic tête-à-tête inside the Vatican Apostolic Palace – and for nearly double the originally scheduled time.
Romans could peer inside the fortified Vatican walls via a special streaming set up on Vatican TV’s web site, where they saw a U.S. delegation (which included Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney) checking watches while waiting in earnest for the two world leaders to conclude their meeting.
It is no small secret that there is considerably high tension between the Catholic bishops of America and the Obama Administration, as the Catholic episcopacy has opposed Obamacare’s controversial mandates concerning the provision of contraceptive products, sterilizations and abortafacients.
The Bishop of Rome is, no doubt, on his American bishops’ side.
With the computer speakers on full blast, it was the closest thing to eavesdropping on the two men, or at least an honest attempt to do so. Though no shouting matches could be overheard, my own fantasy led me to envision the Holy Father “schooling” the President.
In reality, of course, the Affordable Care Act effectively seeks to force Catholic institutions to violate the Church’s moral teachings on a number of critical human life issues. As we speak, landmark injunctions involving Christian business owners have reached the Supreme Court for hearings, with the help of legal groups like the Becket Fund and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which have fought tooth and nail to protect religious freedom in America and around the globe. (ADF, coincidentally just finished their Rome summit with the Catholic media today, educating them on their current religious rights cases in Europe and elsewhere.)
These questions of economic liberty and religious freedom will feature among the questions addressed at Acton’s forthcoming April 29 Rome conference on religious freedom and economic liberty: Faith, State, and the Economy: Perspectives from East and West (#EastMeetsWestRome).
Some imagined that the Pope and the President would tread lightly on pro-life and pro-family issues, where the two leaders do not see eye-to-eye. Others thought they might talk about a peaceful diplomatic resolution the Crimean crisis. Both are lovers, not fighters, right?
They might rather address other social concerns and values they have in common, like poverty alleviation, more Christian-inspired care for the homeless, and job creation in economically depressed communities. This would get Acton friends and colleagues rubbing their hands together, especially after the Pope spoke so eloquently last March 20 on job creation and the dignity of work in the depressed Italian steel mill town of Terni. Here he exhorted entrepreneurs and businesses to embrace the spirit of solidarity and continue to show courage in their risky endeavors so that they can create work opportunities in the economically-struggling region of central Italy.
In the end, the Holy See press release focused on making some very short, specific remarks and did not tell us much, leaving out virtually all the details of the private discussions (as one would expect). Par for the course for a Vatican comunicato !
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.
However, at a joint press conference held later in the afternoon with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, President Obama told international journalists that the emphasis of his meeting with Francis was on one of his favorite issues: economic inequality. The American president said the “largest bulk of [his] time” with the pope was spent discussing “issues of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity and growing inequality” and the “challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world”.
Stay tuned to the Acton PowerBlog as we find out more exciting details of the Pope and President’s historic meeting, especially regarding theologically-guided discussions on poverty alleviation, the dignity of work and economic development through courageous, virtuous enterprise.