White House officials said before the meeting that the president would treat it like a meeting with any head of state, but at the same time, he was well aware of the significance and influence the pope has around the world. They emphasized that despite the focus on the areas where the president and pope disagree -- such as their positions on gay rights, abortion and stem cell research -- they agree on other key issues, such as fighting poverty and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.
"The president, in both his words and in his deeds, expresses many things that many Catholics recognize as fundamental to our teaching," McDonough said. "[T]he president often underscores that dignity of people is a driving goal in what we hope to accomplish in development policy, for example, and in foreign policy."
McDonough said the president has spoken about the "seamless garment of Catholic teaching," a phrase coined by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.
"That garment speaks to not just taking care of the poor and the needy but also investing in the kind of health care infrastructure that would ensure that people like those on the South Side of Chicago, who the president is very familiar with are oftentimes finding their health care not in publicly funded hospitals but in Catholic hospitals, for example," McDonough said.
John Allen, senior correspondent for National Catholic Reporter, said before the meeting there would be a tricky balancing act going on in the room. The pope likely shared his agreement with Obama on some issues, but does not want to be perceived as undercutting the critical position that the U.S. Catholic bishops have taken against Obama.
"They're going to try to walk a tight rope in this meeting and of course the jury is still about whether they are going to make it across or whether they are going to fall somewhere in the middle," Allen said. "President Obama in terms of domestic politics in the states has been a very controversial figure for the Catholic Church
"He is loved by a certain segment of the church that focuses on his peace and justice positions, but he is also seen in a very dim light by another segment of the catholic community in the states, the focus is on his positions on the life issues -- abortion, gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research and so on, so I think there is a great deal of drama on both sides of the water," Allen said.
Hours before his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa as president, President Obama delivered some tough love to African leaders, urging them to get their houses in order so they can better provide for their citizens.
In a meeting this morning with the leaders of Egypt, Algeria, Senegal, Nigeria, Libya and Ethiopia, Obama spoke about his personal connections to both Africa and poverty, and challenged the leaders to set prioritiesfor combating poverty and hunger. According to a top White House aide, "You could have heard a pin drop."
Obama recounted the exchange at a news conference at the conclusion of the G-8 summit.
"The point I was making was that my father traveled to the United States a mere 50 years ago, yet now I have family members who live in villages. They themselves are not going hungry, but they live in villages where hunger is real," Obama said. "And so this is something that I understand in very personal terms."