Pope Francis’ meeting with President Barack Obama Thursday was significant for highlighting sensitive issues related to life and religious freedom.
But it may also point to a change in the Pope’s willingness to be more vocal and forward about such contentious subjects in the near future.
The Vatican’s statement on the meeting stressed that, as well as conflict resolution, human trafficking and immigration reform, life, religious freedom, and conscientious objection were explicitly mentioned as subjects of discussion.
Although the issues arose due to strong differences between the administration and the church over the HHS mandate, it was the first time the Pope had given such attention to these issues on such a high profile occasion, one guaranteed to attract widespread publicity.
President Obama appeared to downplay it, telling reporters later that day that very little time was spent on “social schisms” and that the Affordable Care Act wasn’t touched on “in detail.” He said he “briefly” discussed the issues conscience rights and religious freedom with the Pope, but in a separate meeting, with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
Unhappily for the administration, the Vatican statement made no mention of concerns over income inequality or poverty, thereby departing from the script the Obama administration had been carefully orchestrating. Leading up to Thursday’s audience, through use of the media it had tried hard to align the president’s policies on combating income inequality with the concerns of Pope Francis for the poor, clearly hoping it would be a focus of the meeting and underlining a key area of convergence. Obama said it was discussed, but it wasn’t mentioned in the Vatican statement.
Naturally poverty is of “common concern, as it is to everyone,” a Vatican source told Newsmax on condition of anonymity, but he added that the Pope and Obama have “different approaches” on how to tackle it. For the Pope, what’s important “are people first and foremost, not poverty per se,” he said.
In fact, the Vatican statement contained few words on perceived commonalities between the U.S. and the Holy See — in contrast to the Holy See’s usual statements on papal meetings with world leaders which tend to be top-heavy on areas of agreement.
Massimo Franco, an expert on Vatican-U.S. relations and author of “Parallel Empires — The Vatican and the United States — Two Centuries of Alliance and Conflict,” expected differences would be raised and mentioned publicly, but he thinks it is quite significant that poverty was omitted by the Vatican and yet trumpeted by Obama.
“Wealth inequality is undoubtedly common ground between the Democratic administration and the Pope and U.S. Catholic Bishops,” he said. “But clearly, past tensions still loom.”
Francis has alluded to fundamental issues related to life before, often repeating his condemnation of abortion as a symptom of a “throwaway culture.” But he’s made the comment on relatively low-profile occasions and is on record as saying they don’t need to be addressed “all the time.”
But now he may, as has long been predicted, be raising his voice on such issues as abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage.
Parish priests used to be advised to refrain from tackling problems until one year since arriving in a parish had passed. Some observers believe Pope Francis, whose pastoral skills have led him to be labelled a “papal parish priest” and who commemorated his first year as Pontiff on March 19th, is possibly following the same advice.
Franco takes a different view, and believes the reason for the Vatican statement’s focus on these contentious issues is that the Holy See “is already looking at a post-Obama U.S.” He believes that, as a Latin American, “Francis is not so anxious to please the White House knowing that many bishops are sceptical about its domestic agenda.”
It does appear, however, that, with his extraordinary popularity worldwide providing the Pope with great influence, those opposed to the church’s teaching on these issues are becoming increasingly worried.
One example could be seen on the day of the audience when dissident group ‘Catholics for Choice’ took out a full-page ad in the New York Times telling Obama to ignore the Pope on questions of sexual morality.
Francis “seems like a very nice man, and he is our spiritual leader, but not our political leader,” the ad read, adding that he has an “interpretation of church teachings” on sexual morality that “does not represent that of the majority of Catholics.”
The tide may therefore be turning at a time when Pope Francis is becoming more vocal in bringing these crucial, non-negotiable teachings of the Catholic Church to public attention.
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