April 4, 2014


The pope and the president

Although President Barack Obama was a few minutes early for his meeting with Pope Francis on March 27, he was late among the leaders of countries who paid their respects to the pontiff during his first year in office.

The pope had already met with the leaders of Russia, Germany, France, Spain, the United Nations and European Community, as well as most governmental heads from Latin America and three visits from Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez. And now Queen Elizabeth II has flown to the Vatican to meet with the seventh pope of her 62-year reign.

Prior to the meeting between the pope and president, The New York Times published a lengthy article about the years that Obama spent in Chicago as a community organizer. He had an office in Holy Rosary Church there, and learned about the Church’s social justice teachings.

Although the meeting between the pope and president included some areas of tension between the Church and this administration, it shouldn’t be surprising that they talked mainly about issues about which they agree. Both sides know where both the agreements and the disagreement are. We suspect that most of the disagreements were discussed in the meeting between the president and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, after his meeting with the pope.

According to Obama, during a news conference after the meetings, he discussed the mandate of the Affordable Care Act with Cardinal Parolin. He said that he explained to Cardinal Parolin “that most religious organizations are entirely exempt. Religiously affiliated hospitals or universities or NGOs (non-governmental organizations) simply have to attest that they have a religious objection, in which case they are not required to provide contraception, although employees of theirs who choose are able to obtain it through the insurance company.”

He also said that he pledged to continue dialogue with the U.S. Conference of Bishops. We shall see. This issue will probably eventually be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Obama said that, in his meeting with the pope, two issues were especially prominent in their discussions—the poor, and elusive peace around the world. Then, he said, in terms of domestic issues, the pope’s main concern was immigration reform.

This is hardly surprising because, in the pope’s apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), he says that migrants present a particular challenge for him and, “I exhort all countries to a generous openness which, rather than fearing the loss of local identity, will prove capable of creating new forms of cultural synthesis.”

Besides, the day before his meeting with Obama, the Holy Father promised a 10-year-old girl named Jersey Vargas, during the pope’s general audience, that he would raise the issue of the rising number of deportations of undocumented immigrants. As reported by Rocco Palmo on his website, “Whispers in the Loggia,” the girl’s father was about to be deported from the United States. She was part of a group of immigrant advocates who travelled to Rome from southern California.

The president noted that the pope, “as someone who came from Latin America, is very mindful of the plight of so many immigrants who are wonderful people, working hard, making contributions, many of their children are U.S. citizens, and yet they still live in the shadows, in many cases have been deported and are separated from families.” He expressed optimism that an immigration reform law can be passed.

As for their discussion of elusive peace around the world, the president said that there was specific focus on the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian issue and what is happening in Syria and Lebanon, particularly about the potential persecution of Christians. That has become a serious problem.

A copy of the pope’s apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” was one of the gifts that he gave to the president. That document contains much that the two men agree about, but also much about which they’re in disagreement, mainly the issues of abortion and the other life issues.

Obama conceded as much in his press conference when he said, “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.”

—John F. Fink

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