The Washington Post

The president and the pope: What will they talk about?

During President Obama’s upcoming European trip, he’ll be engaging in important diplomatic and political discussions, including the Nuclear Security Summit, hosted by the Dutch government, and a U.S.-EU Summit in Brussels. But perhaps most anticipated by observers of church and state — and where the two intersect — will be the president’s planned March 27 get together with Time’s Person of the Year, Pope Francis.

Those who have criticized the president’s deference to foreign leaders presumably won’t mind a bowed head at the Vatican, though this particular pontiff has not escaped his own kind of controversy over harsh words regarding the personal costs of unbridled and unregulated capitalism. His message on Tuesday to leaders attending the World Economic Forum in Davos was: “I ask you to ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it.”

A statement by the White House press secretary said, “The President looks forward to discussing with Pope Francis their shared

Pope Francis calls economic system "unjust at its root." (Source: The Washington Post) Pope Francis calls economic system “unjust at its root.” (Source: The Washington Post)

commitment to fighting poverty and growing inequality.” No doubt the two world figures will meet on that common ground.

The president and his party have made the issue of income inequality and increasing opportunities, particularly for those financially at the bottom, a priority. The pope would no doubt approve of the first family’s volunteering at a Washington soup kitchen to mark the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But there is little danger that the meeting will be a litany of Democratic talking points, particularly if it veers away from the social justice tradition of Catholicism.

The president’s administration supports a woman’s right to choose, even when that choice is a legal abortion. In what they hope will be a winning midterm election strategy, Republicans are linking their anti-abortion message with opposition to the Affordable Care Act, reports The New York Times. With the pious Little Sisters of the Poor a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the health law’s contraceptive mandate, Obama could be in for a few awkward silences in his papal conversation.

Though Pope Francis has said that Catholic leaders sometime speak too much about abortion, he has made clear where he and the church stand. This month, he said abortion was evidence of a “throwaway culture.” He said that “it is frightful even to think that there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day.”

The Affordable Care Act does have the support of some groups of nuns who serve the poor, though they mostly happen to be the ones – members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious – subject to Vatican investigation and censure for espousing “radical feminist themes.” In a Vatican statement after he became pope, Francis backed the reforms that came from the investigation; he has supported the role of women in the church, as long as it isn’t priest.

While there are enough issues to guarantee a spirited debate in even a short time, the president who has had his faith questioned and the man of faith whose small efforts to change an entrenched institution have raised eyebrows can ultimately commiserate over the lonely, often contentious life of the person in charge.





Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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