What happened today, March 27, 2014:
President Obama made his second visit to the Vatican today, meeting with Pope Francis for the first time. The president is travelling through Europe this week, and the Washington Post called this the "most symbolic stop" on that trip. Obama came bearing gifts of fruit and vegetable seeds from the White House garden amid the pomp and circumstance required by the Catholic Church. The two met for nearly an hour in the Papal Library. Afterward, Pope Francis gave the president a copy of his apostolic exhortation from last year, perhaps most notable in U.S. media for including critical comments on capitalist excess.
Prior to the meeting, Obama talked about Pope Francis, referring to those comments, with an Italian newspaper. Via CNN:
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."
After the meeting, the Vatican released a statement:
This morning Barack H. Obama, president of the United States of America, was received in audience by Pope Francis, after which he met with Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, secretary for Relations with States.
During the cordial meeting, views were exchanged on some current international themes and hope was expressed 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, the Parties discussed questions of particular relevance for the Church, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform. Finally, the Parties stated their common commitment to the eradication of human trafficking throughout the world.
President Obama tried to downplay that statement (which, note, doesn't include any reference to income inequality specifically, or to economic issues in general) and provide his own account of the substance of conversations. The Hill reports:
Obama told reporters that "the largest bulk of the time" was spent discussing two central concerns of the pope: growing inequality and "how elusive peace is around the world."
He downplayed the Catholic Church's concerns over the provision of the Affordable Care Act that requires employers to provide different forms of birth control as part of their insurance plans.
"We actually didn't talk a lot about social schisms," Obama said.
He said Francis "did not touch in detail on the Affordable Care Act," although he said the issue came up during a meeting with Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin. Catholic hospitals and universities have argued the mandate infringes on religious freedom, and some have sued the administration over the law.
President Obama's meeting with the head of the Catholic Church comes the same week the Supreme Court heard arguments challenging Obamacare's contraception mandate, which the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops opposes. Francis and the president may not have broached the subject. A professor of Catholic studies explains for CNN:
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," [Stephen] Schneck said. "They will be very careful not to undercut the American bishops in that regard."
Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow at the Catholic Association, writes that President Obama has tried to "exploit" the pope's positions on income inequality and poverty to advance his own agenda, pointing out that the president cribbed Francis' apostolic exhortation for a partisan speech. She believes the preisdent's attempt to "tether himself" to Francis and the pope's broader popularity—his approval ratings are twice as high as the president's, according to CNN—is "awkward and ultimately doomed," not just because of the Catholic Church's struggle against components of Obamacare to which it objects, but also because
In 2011, the president stripped the U.S. Conference of Catholics Bishops of its longstanding funding for human-trafficking work because of the Bishops' conscientious objections to referring victims to abortions.
In 2012, he had his lawyers work to strike down the ministerial exception in federal workplace discrimination law, which assures houses of worship the right to employ religious leaders according to doctrine.
Throughout his presidency, he has come under repeated criticism for his numerous aggressions on people of faith, be they rhetorical or legal.
Not only is the president under fire for religious freedom violations on his own soil, he has held power during a period of significant unraveling of religious freedom internationally...
He left vacant, for years, the position of U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Liberty.
University of Chicago professor Martin Malley, meanwhile, hoped Francis would hit on income inequality because of what the pope called his "grave responsibility" to "exhort all the communities to an ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times." Writing in a Reuters column:
Francis has dedicated his papacy to helping those marginalized by harsh economic policies and personal setbacks. He advocates for a "poor church," one that can give a voice to the voiceless. So poverty of all kinds will likely be an urgent topic when the pope and the president sit down.
Francis, of course, directly addresses only the 1.2 billion humans who are in the Catholic orbit, and Obama was elected to serve only one nation. Both, however, have "gone global" - their words and actions affect "present realities" around the world.
You never know where a conversation will go. Unlike arguments, which are guided by having answers to defend, conversations move by the posing of questions. While politeness figures in as presidents talk with popes - we can picture the pope, who has a calling of his own, probing into Washington's policies that affect the poor, the exiled, the excluded and the victims of injustice.
Based on the difference between the Vatican statement and the president's interpretation of the conversation, it doesn't seem that the president was interested in the posing of questions, or even in answers to defend, but in looking for a narrative of agreement that could help him advance his own agenda.